By Abby Stadnyk
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect confirmation that prisoners at a 7th facility, Toronto South Detention Centre, are also participating.
Prisoners at seven prisons and jails in Canada have announced a coordinated hunger strike on July 1, Canada Day. The strike was organized in response to the recent recovery of over a thousand unmarked graves at residential school sites across the country.
At the Edmonton Institution, a maximum security federal prison for men in Edmonton, Alberta, Indigenous prisoners have orange hearts posted on their cell doors, memorializing the thousands of Indigenous children who died in Indian Residential Schools throughout Canada. On July 1, they plan to take action in honour of the children, engaging in a one-day hunger strike alongside prisoners from the Saskatchewan Penitentiary, another federal institution; Regina, Saskatoon, and Pine Grove Correctional Centres, three provincial jails in Saskatchewan; and Fraser Valley Institution for Women, a multi-level prison in British Columbia, according to prisoner advocate Sherri Maier with Beyond Prison Walls Canada.
Matthew Campbell Williams, a representative of the Toronto Prisoner Rights Project, confirmed that one range of prisoners at the Toronto South Detention Centre is also participating in the strike.
In late May, the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation confirmed the unmarked graves of 215 Indigenous children on the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. In the month since, hundreds of additional unmarked graves have been confirmed through the use of ground-penetrating radar: 104 at the site of Brandon Indian Residential School in Manitoba; 751 at Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan; and most recently, 182 at the St. Eugene’s Mission Residential School in British Columbia.
And there will be many more to come. While many Canadians were shocked by the recent news, Indigenous peoples have long grappled with these truths, and many observe that Canadians should also know better. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) made clear that over 3,000 children died at residential schools. Recent estimates put the number much higher, between 15,000-25,000, according to retired senator and head of the TRC, Murray Sinclair.
The Indian Residential School system in Canada (referred to as the boarding school system in the U.S.) was established in the 1880s and ran until 1996, when the last institution closed. Ostensibly “schools,” these carceral facilities were put in place by the Canadian government and largely administered through churches.
In its final report, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada concluded that the system was a form of “cultural genocide,” engineering the removal of Indigenous children from their lands, communities, families, and cultures, with brutal assimilationist ends. Others, like NDP (New Democratic Party) Member of Parliament Leah Gazan, have called for the system to be recognized as genocide.
In response to the recent news, Indigenous communities and grassroots organizers have urged municipalities and individuals to #CancelCanadaDay on July 1, the date of Canadian Confederation in 1867, which is celebrated across Canada as a national holiday. As of June 29, 20 cities and towns had announced their intention to cancel their celebrations.
In addition to the calls for protests, four Catholic churches located on tribal lands have been burned down in recent weeks and one was painted with a message commemorating the children’s lives.
A meme circulating on social media, calling for the cancellation of Canada Day, pointedly asks, “If you knew your neighbours were having a funeral for their kids, would you shoot off fireworks in your backyard and throw a big party?”
“It will, in fact, be a day of mourning,” Vice-Chief of the Sovereign Indigenous Nations in Saskatchewan, David Pratt, explained in an interview with Global News.
Through their planned hunger strike, prisoners at Prairie institutions and beyond have issued their own call to #CancelCanadaDay. A Twitter account that claims to be run by an anonymous prisoner participating in the organizing of the strike at Edmonton Institution, EdmontonMax_Inmate (@EdmontonMaxI), posted on Twitter: “On July 1st, 2021 some of us are standing in solidarity for these innocent children. I ask all fellow prisoners and those in community to do the same.”
In response to this call, a solidarity hunger strike among outside supporters is being planned by Beyond Prison Walls Canada, True North Radio, and Inmates 4 Humane Conditions. Close to 100 people have indicated their support for the event on Facebook.
“We are hunger striking for the ones who lost their lives and also the ones who survived and are still going through this stuff still. We need to celebrate the ones who survived too,” the anonymous Edmonton Institution Twitter account further explained.
Sharise Sutherland-Kayseas, who is incarcerated at Pine Grove Correctional, announced her intention to participate in the strike along with her sister Shaylin Sutherland, who is also incarcerated at Pine Grove. Their mother Dina Kayseas will also participate from outside the prison walls in a ceremonial fast. “[We] will be starting our hunger strike at midnight…for all the Indigenous children who have perished in what my mother calls Indian Residential School Torcher Camps,” Sutherland-Kayseas explained on Facebook.
“I ask that you wear your orange shirts come July 1, 2021,” Sutherland-Kayseas wrote.
“Abolish/Decolonize/Obliterate all KKKolonial Victory Days By Standing in Solidarity with my sister and I and also my fellow Sisters and Brothers who are locked beyond prison walls.”
The call to wear orange–rather than the red and white of the Canadian flag–is significant. In Canada, orange shirts are worn in commemoration of the Indigenous children taken to residential schools. “Orange Shirt Day,” September 30, was inspired by residential school survivor Phyllis (Jack) Webstad (Secwepemc), whose story speaks to the trauma of the system.
“When I got to the Mission, they stripped me, and took away my clothes, including the orange shirt [my granny had bought for me]! I never wore it again,” Webstad explained. “I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t give it back to me, it was mine! The color orange has always reminded me of that and how my feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared and how I felt like I was worth nothing. All of us little children were crying and no one cared.”
On July 1, prisoners across the Prairies will unite to show their care for the children who were taken to residential schools, some of whom were from their own families and communities.
Many prisoners have been deeply impacted by the residential school system, as Molly Swain, otipémsiw-iskwéw and member of Free Lands Free Peoples, explained in an interview with Perilous:
“It’s really important that we remember…that a lot of folks who are currently incarcerated or have been incarcerated are survivors or intergenerational survivors of the residential school system. This is not something that’s an abstract grief. It’s not an abstract issue. It’s not an abstract form of solidarity that’s distant. It’s part of people’s realities on the inside.”
Swain also observed the connection between residential schools and prisons, underscoring the structural similarities between the two: “When you read survivor memoirs, when you read about what residential schools were actually doing, the structure of them and the form that they took, it is very, very clear that prisons are contemporary extensions of residential schools.”
Within these “new residential schools,” as prisons are commonly understood, Indigenous prisoners will come together on July 1 in a powerful act of remembrance for Indigenous children whose lives were stolen by carceral institutions.
“What they’re doing is a really important gesture of commemoration and mourning and grief,” Swain commented. “People on the inside are able to see that you can’t just have business as usual with a few ‘thoughts and prayers’. You need to take powerful action, however you can, to acknowledge these horrors, to mourn them, and to commemorate them.”
Abby Stadnyk is a contributing writer to Perilous Chronicle based in Edmonton, AB, Canada. Follow her on Twitter: @AbbyStadnyk