By Abby Stadnyk
An audio version of this article is available from Kite Line Radio
Prisoner justice advocate. Word warrior. Relative, friend, and comrade. Born in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and a member of the Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation, Mr. Cory Charles Cardinal (a.k.a. Cardinalis) died of a drug overdose on June 9, 2021 at the age of 38. His tireless work on behalf of his community of incarcerated and street kin provides a powerful example of what it means to devote one’s life to community care and relational responsibility inside the prison and beyond.
In one of the many letters he wrote over the past year to Saskatchewan Minister of Corrections and Policing Christine Tell, protesting the deplorable conditions of provincial jails during COVID-19, Cardinal signed off as “Advocate with the inmates.” Not advocate for the inmates, but with them. This small but crucial word choice says much about the ethic of relationality that guided all of Cardinal’s work.
Cardinal was a leader, yes, but he didn’t lead as an individual apart from or above his community. He positioned himself as one among many in a circle of brothers whom he often described as “young lost Aboriginal warriors.”
And Cardinal was certainly a warrior: a self-described “protector of the people,” he waged many battles against the settler colonial institutions and structures that target Indigenous peoples for elimination.
Systems of Oppression
Cardinal’s experience with systems of colonial violence began during childhood when he was taken from his parents and put into the child welfare system. Describing himself as “a product of foster homes,” Cardinal was part of the “stolen generations” or 60s Scoop, a term that refers to the estimated 20,000 Indigenous children taken from their families between 1960 and 1990 and placed in primarily white homes.
The 60s Scoop is understood by many as a continuation of the residential school system (referred to as boarding schools in the U.S.), which removed Indigenous children from their lands, communities, cultures, and families, with traumatic, intergenerational effects. The theft of Indigenous children continues today, with more Indigenous children in state care now than at the height of the residential school system.
“Lost to the grip of child welfare,” Cardinal wrote in STR8 UP & Gangs (2011), “many troublesome years of abuse at the hands of different foster parents sowed a profound seed of dysfunction amongst me and my siblings.” In Calgary, Alberta, Cardinal and his brother and sister were bounced around from foster home to foster home. “Growing up and getting moved from place to place, I learned to fight and stand up for myself.”
“As I grew older,” he continued, “so did the dysfunctional seed that was planted by the gardener of abuse and neglect, which soon started blossoming into feelings of abandonment and anger.” At the age of 15, in an effort to find belonging and acceptance, he joined a gang, which he later left: “After learning that my brother dropped his colours [i.e., left the gang], I followed suit, which inherited me a lot of enemies, most of whom I had never even met.”
In addition to his critique of the child welfare system, Cardinal wrote passionately about the role of policing in the dispossession of Indigenous peoples. In his poem “Eight Diagrams of Street Logic,” he warns, “Watch who you trust! Don’t talk to no cops! All they have for a native is their keys and their locks.”
In 2018, he brought media attention to his experience of being racially profiled by police, commenting in a statement to Pro Bono Law Saskatchewan: “The police officer pulled me in because I was Aboriginal and they thought I matched a description. I am being dragged through judicial proceedings for a crime I have nothing to do with.”
Cardinal continued to hone his critical analysis of the penal system as an instrument of settler colonial warfare during his most recent stint at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre. In a recorded talk for the Saskatchewan-Manitoba-Alberta Abolition Coalition (S.M.A.A.C.), he explained his perspective on the impact of colonial systems on young Indigneous men. In Saskatchewan provincial jails, approximately 75% of prisoners are Indigenous.
“When I first began I was a patron of this systemic oppression that affected this demographic of young lost aboriginal men who had no idea and had no chance of a defense in the form of their dignity,” Cardinal said. “When it all boils down to dignity here, which was taken from them. They were put into cells and fed with watered down peanut butter sandwiches and kept at an over incarceration rate. These are a demographic of people that have been suppressed by a colonial system dating back before they were born so they had no chance and they were born into a system that worked to suppress them.”
In his “Letter to Advocates,” Cardinal further discussed this “epidemic” of Indigenous incarceration, emphasizing how Indigenous men have been “unjustly labelled…as ‘criminals’ and ‘thieves’ as part of a 154-year long campaign to diminish our identities as protectors of our people.”
As much as he focused on revealing systemic oppression, however, Cardinal never lost sight of hope. And he steadfastly refused to depict his communities from a deficit or damage-centered perspective. Instead, he insisted on their collective power.
“Within this architecture of oppression,” he said, “we are a vibrant community of strong, intelligent brothers who eat together, wrestle and play together, and protect each other from a system that has exploited us.”
Resistance Amidst COVID-19
On January 4, 2021, a multi-institutional hunger strike began across Saskatchewan, with some prisoners refusing food for over two weeks. As the lead organizer, Cardinal catalyzed into action over 90 prisoners from the Saskatoon Correctional Centre and Pine Grove Correctional Centre, a women’s provincial jail in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.
Strikers protested the deplorable conditions in Saskatchewan’s provincial jails and called for the resignation of the Minister of Corrections and Policing Christine Tell for failing to protect those in custody from COVID-19.
Outside advocates heeded Cardinal’s call to support prisoner efforts, organizing a national day of action, circulating a petition that gained over 1,500 signatures, and engaging in a solidarity hunger strike.
In November 2020, two months earlier, Cardinal had sounded the alarm, writing to Minister Tell and warning of the potential for serious COVID-19 outbreaks should the ministry fail to decarcerate its overcrowded jails and improve access to PPE, hygiene products, and cleaning supplies.
He called for the release of elderly and immunocompromised prisoners, as well as those on remand (pre-trial or pre-sentencing detention). He drew attention to the increased dangers facing prisoners with pre-existing health conditions such as HIV and Hep C, which he stressed were an “epidemic” on their own. Living with HIV himself, Cardinal was a longtime advocate for people with blood-borne infections.
Cardinal’s letters to the Minister went unanswered. In late November, there was a COVID-19 outbreak at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre, with 142 people documented as contracting the virus. Due to inadequate testing and substantial rates of false negatives, the true number is likely much higher.
“The COVID virus is the virus of truth,” Cardinal said in an interview with Prison Radio. “I truly believe that refusing to protect a vulnerable demographic of people and letting them get sick, knowing that the correctionals are full with Aboriginal people with pre-existing health conditions…I truly believe that’s an act of genocide, meant to eradicate.”
But despite these dire conditions, Cardinal again found hope. Reflecting on the collective action of late 2020 and early 2021, he said, “It just sparked a movement. It took off like wildfire.”
“It was a true show of unification… and it was very uplifting.”
Cardinal was a talented poet and spoken word artist. He brought his considerable skills in creative expression to a range of topics, writing and rhyming prolifically about homelessness, substance use, poverty, alienation, suffering–and, always, survival. He was a self-described “poetic street survival advocate,” using his art to record and resist. When he lacked paper, he was known to put pen to skin, using his body as the canvas for his words.
His poem “A Warrior’s Expression,” penned during the January strike, speaks to this experience:
A Warrior’s Expression
I’m just a man,
A modern-day warrior divided by colonial structures
Cut deep, stitched up with sutures
Babies born to systematic mothers
Elaborate schemes prevail
Suppressed, vulnerable Natives by numbers
Prisons paint portraits of potential bricks that hold humanity,
Etched in a concrete slab
Young lost Native kids, foreign games, to protect each other in this concrete jungle
Of government numbers.
Lost ways are found to stand together
A primordial code in traditional cultures remembered
Old, wise Elders speak tales of truth
To young lost youth
Like fires inside the hearts of men prevail
Understanding sets sail like ships of Columbus
The rain washes dirt and pain away
No more ruckus, no more strains
This is poetry, spoken word rains heavy
Teach lessons, influence
Young lost confused minds to a path of profession.
A young Aboriginal warrior’s expression.
In 2010, Cardinal won a writing contest at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre, and many of his poems were featured in Creative Escape, an annual volume of poetry, prose, and visual art by incarcerated men.
He also authored a chapter in STR8 UP and Gangs: The Untold Stories (2011), a gang prevention book for youth, which features the stories of former street gang members. As with everything he did, Cardinal was driven to do this work by a sense of responsibility–in this case, to Indigenous youth.
“After a lengthy incarceration,” he wrote, “I came upon many young kids, all of whom were in the midst of initiating into gang life, without a clue as to what it was about. It was then that I finally decided that I had gained enough responsibility to become a positive role model…. I picked up a pen and began writing about my life.”
STR8 UP and Gangs sold over 3,000 copies across the prairies and was nominated for a Saskatchewan Book Award in 2011.
An educator as well as an agitator, Cardinal used his art to teach and inspire. His work sparked the development of Inspired Minds, a creative writing program for incarcerated men and women in Saskatchewan and Alberta. He worked on a documentary entitled Homeless Not Hopeless, which aimed to raise awareness about the realities of homelessness in Saskatoon. And as a guest lecturer at the University of Saskatchewan, sharing his poetry in numerous literature classes, he opened students’ minds to the systemic oppression faced by incarcerated people, while igniting hope for change.
More recently, in February 2021, he partnered with True North Radio to celebrate Aboriginal Storytelling Month, gathering together a group of men at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre to share their creative works on community radio. Cardinal often spoke passionately about the tremendous wealth of creative talent behind bars, never missing an opportunity to provide a platform for this work.
“The Correctional Centre here is an untapped pool of inmate talent, an underground subculture, a creative cultural revolution,” he said.
After Cardinal’s death, Victoria Cowan, a student who had heard Cardinal present at the University of Saskatchewan, reflected on Facebook: “The system is violent–Cory’s life and death is a sad testament to that. But Cory fought tooth and nail to carve out space for his humanity within dehumanizing systems and discourses… and that is why we must keep fighting for him.”
Sara-Jane Keith, another student, commented: “Despite having some tough cards to deal with, there’s nothing that stopped Cory’s advocacy, his writing, his fierce mission to make things better for his communities…. He was always working on something big. What to write and how he could make a difference.”
Protector of the People
And make a difference he did. Through his work as a prisoner justice advocate, Cardinal fulfilled his purpose to protect his people. He “found his calling,” in defending fellow prisoners, as he explained in a conversation with Perilous.
His advocacy work began back in 2015 in response to endemic overcrowding at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre. In 2019, he founded Inmates 4 Humane Conditions, a “network of unified inmates advocating for a better system for all.”
Cardinal knew that the voices and stories of prisoners needed to be heard, and he encouraged his comrades to defend their rights. In January 2021, with the help of Sherri Maier of Beyond Prison Walls Canada, he organized a letter writing campaign, which led to over 20 letters being sent from prisoners to the Minister of Corrections and Policing Christine Tell, decrying the state of Saskatchewan’s jails.
In one such letter, fellow prisoner Oliver Peekeekoot spoke to Cardinal’s support: “I have had the misfortune of being incarcerated here at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre overflow dorm. I am actually at a loss for words. However, my brother Cory won’t let me slide and insists I share my story.”
Indeed, part of Cardinal’s power was his ability to galvanize others into action, both inside and beyond the prison walls.
He inspired lawyers, journalists, prisoner justice advocates, and penal abolitionists across the country. Sherri Maier of Beyond Prison Walls Canada worked closely with Cardinal over the past year. In an interview with Perilous, Maier spoke about Cardinal’s work and his legacy:
“Cory was a strong voice for prisoners, far stronger than I was, but together through his empowering words and my contacts, we were able to get the voices of inmates heard. Cory was a person that saw a problem and quickly addressed it and wanted to put it on the list of things we would tackle once he was out.”
Karrie Auger, nehiyaw and member of Free Lands Free Peoples, an anti-colonial penal abolition group based in Edmonton, Alberta, also worked with Cardinal over the past year. In an interview with Perilous, Auger spoke of the impact of Cardinal’s life on her own work and the work of her community.
“Cory’s work was central to everything that we were doing as a new Indigenous-led anticolonial group,” Auger said. “We showed up because he reminded us of our obligations and responsibilities to each other. Painfully, his death and the violence he experienced in the carceral system reminds us that there is no justice in this system for Indigenous peoples and there never will be. Cory’s unending resistance to the system is a call to our communities to set our collective fire to this system, and let grow from the ashes an Indigenous system of love, care, and responsibility.”
In 2020, with the rise of COVID-19, Cardinal became increasingly concerned not only about the health and safety of his fellow prisoners, but about the specific issues facing Indigenous women, particularly those behind bars. He drew attention to the Calls for Justice of the Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, insisting that Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders do more to implement the calls, particularly those related to incarcerated women.
He was especially impacted by the story of Kimberly Squirrel, an Indigenous woman who had been incarcerated at Pine Grove Correctional Centre. Only three days after her release, Squirrel was found frozen outside. Upon learning about her death in the newspaper, Cardinal sprang into action–organizing an inmate support fund, instituting a toll-free support line, and making plans for a robust grassroots network of care that would support prisoners and those recently released.
“I wanted to honour Kimberly Squirrel…. I wanted to show the public that we’re capable of protecting each other,” Cardinal explained in an interview with Perilous. “It’s an old social structure that existed a long time ago that we need to reclaim, that I’ve reclaimed for myself, and that’s protecting our women–even if it is from a cell…. I wanted to show the public that we’re capable of those acts of generosity, of protecting vulnerable people.”
Continuing the Struggle
On the day he was released from the Saskatoon Correctional Centre, just two months before his death, Cardinal took part in a protest with other concerned citizens, speaking out against the Saskatchewan Party government’s decision not to fund Prairie Harm Reduction, Saskatchewan’s only safe injection site.
As someone who used drugs, Cardinal was passionate about the need for harm reduction. In an interview with the Saskatoon StarPhoenix, he said, “I know for a fact if I had a safe place to go, I wouldn’t be so ashamed of my addiction. And I wouldn’t be out using by myself, using dangerously.”
On June 9, 2021, Cardinal died from a drug overdose on the streets of Saskatoon, where he was living after his release. His death is not only a horrible tragedy, but a searing indictment of the colonial systems that engineered his death.
“It was a heartbreaking thing that happened,” Cardinal said of Kimberly Squirrel shortly after her death. “What happened to her was another example of systemic failure.”
Of course, the same could be said of Cardinal. Given the proper supports–safe supply, safe injection, and a strong circle of non-carceral care–his death could have been prevented.
Maier said that, even after all he’d done to raise awareness about the need to help prisoners upon release, Cardinal did not get the support he needed when he was released.
“They knew he had an addiction,” Maier explained. “Cory has appeared, before he went into custody, on a Saskatoon paramedic show for having overdosed with fentanyl. So to me, I hold the system responsible in their negligence in that they knew he had an addiction, they knew he doesn’t always have a place to go, but they didn’t assist him in any way.”
Still, Maier said that the work that she and Cardinal started continues even after his death.
“I look back at some of the plans that we made and I really do believe I need to carry those through for him,” Maier said. “We did get a nice big grant from an organization to help inmates and I think he’d be really proud right now. Yesterday we did give out over $700 in money grams for inmates so that was great. I think he’d be really happy. And I think I’ve given out about $300 in phone packages to inmates as well. I wish he were here to see what we’ve been able to do and that we got that grant.”
“I think there’s a lot of things that I’m going to have to try and pull through and get going because that’s what Cory would really want to see happen,” Maier said.
While the system worked against Cardinal in every way possible, he was never defeated. In his persistent resistance to colonial suppression, his love for his people, and his decision to fight harder, speak louder, and continue the struggle, we find a clear set of directions for how to move forward in the wake of his death.
Fight harder, speak louder, continue the struggle. He’s shown us how.
Abby Stadnyk is a contributing writer to Perilous Chronicle based in Edmonton, AB, Canada. Follow her on Twitter: @AbbyStadnyk