Prisons in Canada Still Racist After Forty Years of Reform: By Abby Rolston

In the late 1960s, Native resistance in Canadian prisons skyrocketed. Native prisoners fought to reclaim spiritual and social practices banned by prison authorities. They published papers, proclaimed themselves political prisoners, organized self-defense against guard brutality, and occupied and protested within the prison walls. The demands and politics of 1960s Indigenous prison organizing was influenced by the Red Power movement, and also by the fact that Indigenous people were facing disproportionately high levels of prison incarceration. By 1973, Native peoples represented 2% of the population in Canada, but 8% of the prisoner population, 26% in Saskatchewan.

The Indigenous prisoner movement demanded immediate reforms to prison conditions while penal-system abolitionists in the movement also criticized prisons as colonial institutions. Prisoners called for Native-only prisons, and an end to internal punishments such as solitary confinement and physical punishment. They also demanded social programs outside prison. In 1977, native prisoner Bobby Woods travelled to Geneva for a conference on global Indigenous peoples and the law, where he argued for Native peoples’ freedom from colonial law. He argued for Indigenous national sovereignty over so-called “criminal” behaviour by using the customs and practices of native communities and nations instead of colonial prison incarceration.

The Canadian prison system responded by implementing some reforms. As a prison abolition activist today, I argue that these reforms changed imprisonment conditions to co-opt native prisoner resistance, in order to squash it. Canadian prisons hired Native prison and parole workers, Prison wardens recognized elders as spiritual guides, opened space for social and cultural programs, and introduced limited capacity Healing Lodges as alternative minimum and medium security programs. Meanwhile, the number of Indigenous people incarcerated in this “reformed” prison system in Canada has grown considerably from the 1970s to today.

While reforms to the system have lessened the direct impact on native lives inside, they did not change the colonial function of prisons in society. The 2013-2014 Annual Report of the Correctional Investigator, or watchdog, of the Canadian prison system (his name is Howard Sapers) documents the current reality of native imprisonment in Canada. Native peoples make up 4% of the overall population, and:

  • 1 in 4 imprisoned people are Native. In the Prairies, 1 in 2.
  • Native imprisonment continues to grow, doubling in the last 15 years.
  • More than 1 in 3 women prisoners are native.
  • More than a quarter of the cases where force was used were against native prisoners.
  • 1 in 3 suicides in Canadian prisons were native prisoners
  • Native prisoners experience higher rates of maximum-security incarceration, denial of parole, solitary confinement, and recidivism (return to prison) than any other group.

Are aboriginal people “landing” in the justice system, or is the justice system “landing” on them?

Statistics of Indigenous incarceration show that Canada’s legal system does not move native prisoners through the system and release them at the same rate as other prisoners. Police racial profiling and treatment of “crime” in our society falls harder on the heads of working-class, poor, racialized, and Indigenous peoples than it does (if it does) on the white collar crimes of the rich.

This isn’t about “history” or “lingering effects” of colonialism in the past, this is about the structural racism of capitalism expressed through the institutions of the state. In a 1975 interview published in the Vancouver feminist magazine Makara, Mary, a Nisga’a woman and prisoner, reflected on surviving life in a colonial prison. She said, “I want [my child] to realize that in order to survive and live with things we have to live with, it’s really important that he learn our language and learn the old ways […] Residential school was really like Oakalla [prison in Burnaby]. The windows didn’t have bars but there might as well have been because you were institutionalized, you got up at a certain time, you could play for an hour after lunch and supper and then have a bath and go to bed […] Four or five flights of stairs you had to wash with a toothbrush, and if it wasn’t clean, do it over again […] You had to write on a paper 500 times ‘I won’t speak my own language […] Myself, you know I’m not shaking it rough times, but I like to be with my son. That is the most precious thing to me. Otherwise, it’s not so hard because I think I’ve been through it before – not in prison, but something like it.”


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