The Indigenous Struggle and Imprisonment

In this blog about prisons I want to talk about indigenous people today, for several reasons.

Firstly, because our awful reality is that the Canadian prison system is reliant upon the exploitation of indigenous people to exist. The struggles of indigenous people and the Canadian prison system are not separate nor isolated problems.

Unfortunately, I lived for 21 years without knowing much about either. For 16 of these years I lived in my home city of Hamilton. I was raised there, I received my education there, I grew up blocks away from a jail, an hour away from a prison, 40 minutes away from a reserve and still, I knew nothing about either prisons or aboriginal people here.

Why is that ?

Had I not had a passion for caring for living things in the environment, I never would have moved to BC and sought out life experiences rich in aboriginal culture. I never would have visited self- sufficient indigenous spaces that welcome in any people to learn and live a way of being that respects life and is not based upon destruction and consumption.

I would have carried with me the extremely racist mentalities that my school teachers put into my mind as a child, when I learned that “what happened to natives happened a long time ago and they need to learn how to adjust to the Canadian way”.

I would have never know about residential schools or the 60’s scoop and I never would have known about the violence, poverty and addiction that exists on reserves, or that these problems exist entirely because of the lasting and ongoing effects of colonization.

And I never would have known that all across this country stood cages called prisons that were filled, just filled with indigenous peoples, criminalized for nothing more than the heritage from which they were born.

Indeed, had I not been stolen from my own life and wrongfully convicted of murder, I likely never would have understood how much of the Canadian prison systems resources are used to over imprison and isolate indigenous people.

Many prisons is Canada, specifically those in the prairie region, imprison aboriginal people almost exclusively. Stoney Mountain Prison, for example, keeps and average of a 90% indigenous population.

Here, in the Max unit of Grand Valley, there has not been less than a 50% indigenous population since I have been here. And once within the prison system, aboriginal people receive higher security classifications and continue to experience systemic racism on a regular basis .

I have been in prison for almost two years, and the full and terrible effects and true nature of the criminalization and domination of indigenous communities by the Canadian state and by Canadian culture are still sinking in. It is no wonder that most of us in Canada do not know or teach our children the truth about the history and the current state’s relationship to indigenous people here—the truth is unbearably harsh.

The stories I hear from the women I live with make me weep. These women, young and old, have been raised under conditions most Canadians cannot fathom, either by their natural family in unthinkable poverty, or as wards of the state in residential schools and foster homes alike.

Women after women, month after month, I learn a new tale of a woman who had every odd against her. In northern Ontario today indigenous teenagers actually have to leave their homes and live with families they do not know in cities they have never lived in, should they want to go to high school because there are no schools on or near their reserves. The popular CBC documentary show, the Fifth Estate, reported on some of the problems that stem from this issue last year, in an episode entitled, Stories From the River’s Edge.

It is but one in a sea of unacceptable occurrences that form the current daily realities of so many of our brothers and sisters.

The second reason why I am writing about indigenous people today is because of the remarkable uprising that is occurring in response to the Harper government’s assimilation agenda. On top of all of the struggles that aboriginal communities face, the same state that took my life and put me in prison and the same state who is selling our land and resources and who is dismantling every environmental safeguard we have, the same state who put forth the Omnibus crime bill C-10, which effectively birthed a Canadian prison industrial complex is trying to trample on what few legal rights and agreements it has in place with indigenous people.

But from this prison, where I see racism inflicted daily on my indigenous sisters, I have been watching and listening, wide-eyed and inspired by the resistance that the states tactics have sparked. I cheered for the CN rial blockade, and I am galvanized by all of the actions of the Idle No More effort and by the huger strike of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence.

Yesterday, two women in the max and I began a solidarity fast with the huger strike and all of the actions that are occurring. We planned the fast from Friday January 4th to Monday January 7th, and it is successfully under way. Last night another women approached me and told me she would join our fast, increasing our numbers to four of the the 14 women imprisoned within Grand Valley’s maximum security unit. This woman, who is an aboriginal woman, had been looking for a time for a way to contribute to the resistance. She is not just fasting for 72hrs, but in support of the existing actions and in opposition to all of the injustices inflicted upon aboriginal women, she will fast until Friday morning.

The show of solidarity by her and everyone who is participating is incredibly inspiring. To often we feel powerless with in the prison system. Any type of political organizing is highly criminalized, so most women her feel that they have no choice but to accept what ever happens to them, not just in the context of the government’s aggressive policy overhaul but also within the context of the treatment we receive as imprisoned people.

Yet there is much injustice within this justice system, and all of it disproportionally affects aboriginal people.

The aboriginal struggle is at the forefront of social problems here, whether we acknowledge it or not. And even if the present resistance achieves the political reconciliation that it aspires to, there will still be prisons filled with criminalized, isolated aboriginal people, and this needs to be addressed. But we have got to start somewhere and it seems that we have.

So, with an empty stomach and full heart I will close this post in solidarity with my sisters within this prison and with everyone outside who is aware that we are living in a time where much change is still needed, and who is standing up and announcing that it is time to do something about it.