Prisoners Stand Against Racism and Colonialism in Canada’s “New Residential Schools”

Prisoners Stand Against Racism and Colonialism in Canada’s “New Residential Schools”

By Abby Stadnyk

Content warning: This article contains references to sexual assault at residential schools, self-harm, suicidal ideation, and graphic slurs.

On July 1, prisoners at seven institutions across Canada engaged in a coordinated one-day solidarity fast in honour of Indigenous children who died in the custody of the Indian Residential School system, a carceral apparatus of church and state designed to “kill the Indian in the child.” With genocidal intent and effect, the system operated in Canada from the 1880s to 1996, when the last institution closed.

According to prisoner advocate Sherri Maier of Beyond Prison Walls Canada, 3 units at the Edmonton Institution in Alberta participated in the fast, along with individuals at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary, Saskatoon Correctional, Regina Correctional, and Pine Grove Correctional, all in Saskatchewan. Prisoners at Fraser Valley Institute for Women in British Columbia and the Toronto South Detention Centre in Ontario also participated.

Asked for comment, neither the Correctional Service of Canada nor Saskatchewan Corrections was able to provide any confirmation of the number of people involved. 

The 24 hour action, variously described as a “fast” and a “hunger strike”, began at 12am on July 1, Canada Day, as part of a larger grassroots movement to #CancelCanadaDay. The refusal to participate in any celebration of the Canadian Confederation was spurred by the recent recovery of over 1500 unmarked graves at Indian Residential School sites across the country, as well as renewed attention to the fact that many thousands more will most certainly be found. 

It was a really powerful gesture of commemoration and mourning and grief,” said Molly Swain, otipémsiw-iskwéw organizer and member of Free Lands Free Peoples.

Turtle Island Healing Walk in London, Ontario on July 1, 2021. (Photo credit: Aries Digital Media)

Prisons are the “New Residential Schools”

“The prisons are full of residential school survivors and their descendants, and they are in mourning too,” said Indigenous studies scholar and organizer Shiri Pasternak in an interview with Perilous. 

The hyper-incarceration of Indigenous people in Canadian prisons is well known. Making up only 5% of the overall population in Canada, Indigenous people comprise over 30% of those incarcerated in federal prisons. The numbers are worse in the Prairie region, where 54% of federal prisoners and as many as 75% of provincial jail detainees are Indigenous.

In an interview with Perilous, Dina Kayseas, an “Indian residential school torture camp survivor” and mother to two incarcerated women, spoke to the trauma and grief that prisoners are dealing with, often on their own: “At the end of the day, they are intergenerational residential torture camp survivors,” she said. “Can you imagine them being in there alone, not being able to cry or to react because their behavior is looked at under a microscope?”

Also called “historic trauma,” intergenerational trauma refers to the deep psychological and cultural wounds that the Indian Residential School system has inflicted on Indigenous peoples. Researchers say this trauma is passed down and accumulates over the generations, so that even those who weren’t in residential school themselves are still profoundly impacted by the system.  

As Pasternak explained, “The late Mohawk scholar Patricia Monture Angus talked about the vicious cycle of the criminal justice system and the child welfare system. The intergenerational trauma of the residential schools was perpetuated through the provincial child welfare system, which was also a system of profound alienation, harm, violence, and sexual abuse that led Indigenous people to be targeted by the state through these predatory systems.”  

Justice studies scholar Michelle Stewart calls this the “care-to-prison pipeline,” noting in an interview with Global News that “it’s really emblematic of a system that needs to address systemic racism, the impacts of colonialism and the ongoing impacts of residential schools and intergenerational trauma.” 

Speaking of intergenerational survivors who are coping with the recent news while incarcerated, Kayseas said, “They’re going through so much…. They have grandparents and mothers and fathers that were in those schools. They’ve lost people also.”  

In an emailed statement to Perilous, the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) recognized that “the tragic discoveries of unmarked graves at former residential schools may be difficult and emotional for survivors to hear.” The CSC also referred to a June 25 message from Commissioner Anne Kelly to prisoners and their families, which encouraged those in need of assistance to “reach out to someone if you need to talk, like an Elder, Health Services or your support network. The National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is also available to provide support to former residential school students and those affected.” 

Incarcerated people and their families say such help is not as readily available as one would hope, however.

Incarcerated at the Edmonton Institution, residential school survivor Robert Gordon explained in an interview with Perilous that he was not able to access the crisis line: “They do say that we have access to these phone numbers, like the residential school crisis line and all that, but we don’t have access to it. It’s not on my PIN [personal identification number, which allows a prisoner to phone approved numbers]…. I have to go through a process to get it on my PIN.”

Dina Kayseas agreed: “To get that 1-800 number, it needs to be approved, and that takes a while, up to two weeks. And in that time, there’s a lot of people that have suicidal ideation, and this just impacts them in such a negative way, not having the resources or the proper help within those walls.”

Not only are many residential school survivors now incarcerated, but some criminologists say prison is its own kind of “new residential school.” 

In fact, as historian Jennifer Graber has documented, U.S. boarding schools (the equivalent of residential schools in Canada) were modeled on a 19th century military prison (Fort Marion). General Richard Henry Pratt, architect of the infamous Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, the first such institution in the United States, was in fact first an army general who subjected Indigenous prisoners of war at Fort Marion to his “corrective,” assimilatory agenda.

Ledger drawing by Etahdleuh Doanmoe (Hunting Boy), a young Kiowa man incarcerated at Fort Marion, c. 1876. Many of the prisoners used art to document their experiences at the Fort.

An Indigenous prisoner at the Edmonton Institution who spoke with Perilous on conditions of anonymity, addressed this carceral continuum: “When we hear the stories about how they [children in the residential school system] were treated, the same thing is happening in these prisons today. When you really think about it, that is the ripple, that’s the aftermath, the intergenerational trauma…. They’re tearing down and trying to take our souls.”

According to the Edmonton prisoner, guards at the facility have made callous comments to prisoners in recent weeks about the prisoners’ experience in residential schools. On one occasion, he said, a prisoner who is a residential school survivor “made a comment to an officer about…his experience [in residential school]. He said that there’s nothing different from residential school here [in prison].” With graphic reference to the child sexual abuse endemic to the residential school system, “the CO (Correctional Officer) said, ‘At least you’re not getting fucked…. We don’t fuck you…. There’s the difference.’” 

“I heard that and the hair on the back of my neck stood up,” the prisoner said.

Racism Runs Deep 

Individual and systemic racism runs deep in prisons across the country. The anonymous prisoner at the Edmonton Institution described in great detail the horrific treatment he has received at the hands of guards there. 

“We’ve been going through some really disgraceful stuff here, just a lot of discrimination for mental health stuff. We were being called ‘mental retards’, ‘retarded guys,’” he said. He further explained that the men on his unit were being refused brooms and standard cleaning products because, as one guard reportedly said, “You guys are too retarded to have a broom.”

In addition to these slurs, he reported segregation-like conditions, with prisoners having very little time out of their cells and being told that they “don’t deserve programs.”

He also spoke to conditions of lateral violence and blatant racism: “It’s pretty much like the bully effect, the ripple effect for the bullies. The guards were bullying these certain inmates and then those inmates were bullying the severe mental health disorder guys. The mental health disorder guys can’t defend themselves…so what they did is they shit-bombed the other guys…. It smelt like feces on the unit and the guards came on the unit and said, ‘It smells like a reserve’ [the term used in Canada to refer to an Indigenous reservation].”

He also detailed the institutional segregation of white and Indigenous prisoners, noting that white prisoners were often treated better than Indigenous prisoners. His job, he said, was taken from him for no apparent reason and given to a white man. 

“They just target the Indigenous people in here,” he explained. “I started really drawing my attention to that” after the news broke about the children’s deaths. “And I started realizing that that’s just the way it is here. You know, that white privilege is just the way of life inside these prisons. And it really started to affect me in a way where I just didn’t want to live anymore…. I just felt really suicidal.” 

He felt like he had no other option than to self-harm, something another man on his unit also threatened to do: “They [the guards] asked him why, and he said, ‘Because you guys are so racist, I’m sick of it’…. That was the tipping point for me…. I just started railing on my wrist with a razor blade…. I was like, I can’t take this no more. And I put that other razor blade to my neck and I said, ‘I’m going to cut my throat open if you guys don’t stop.’”      

Following this incident, as well as a report to management, the prisoner says that there are signs of improvement: “They said that they would address the issues that were happening at this institution…. They couldn’t fix everything overnight, but they did talk to those guards and there hasn’t been any racial slurs and they gave me back my job.”    

Healing through Collective Action and Ceremony

Systemic racism at the Edmonton Institution spurred prisoners there to act in solidarity with residential school survivors and in honour of the children who died. “Because of all the racist stuff that’s been happening in this institution,” the anonymous Edmonton prisoner said, “I just felt that it was really important to let [survivors] know that we’re still alive and we’re going through the same things that they went through.”

“We wanted to stand with them and let them know that they’re not forgotten,” he explained

Another prisoner at the Edmonton Institution, Robert Gordon, explained in an interview with Perilous: “I’m a residential school survivor, and I just thought it was appropriate to fast for all of those graves and show support to other residential school survivors.”

“I carry that burden that I had when I was a kid. I wear it like a badge of honour,” Gordon added. “It made me who I am, but it made me a lot stronger and more resilient.” 

The anonymous prisoner discussed the support the men received for their fast from management, cultural center staff, and Elders at the institution: “The Elder sang a couple of songs. She told us that she was going to stand with us in solidarity along with the management team, and she said that once we can get full contact back [post-COVID], we are going to have a feast for the kids that were lost.”

Gordon, however, pointed to continued disrespect from guards even during the ceremonies: “I have a little orange heart [a symbol for the children who died] placed on my window and some of them walk by and laugh at it… just being inappropriate. I don’t know if it’s a personal attack on me or what, but they seem to thrive on doing stuff like that. They get a reaction out of us because they can…. They have nothing to lose at the end of the day. They get to go home to their family.”

“A lot of the staff here doesn’t really understand the stuff that we go through,” Gordon said. 

Ultimately, Gordon urged the public to “be more open-minded about what they think when they read about people in the prison system. Not everybody’s just being a bad person here. There’s people trying to make changes in their lives, trying to just do their time, you know, and go back to their families or their loved ones.”

At the Pacific Institution/Regional Treatment Centre in Abbotsford, British Columbia, following the recovery of 215 unmarked graves on the grounds of the Kamloops Residential School in late May, another fast was held. This one took place over four days. According to Cree prisoner Andy Peekeekoot (Kutawusin Mahikan), at least 23 incarcerated people participated. 

In an interview with Perilous, Peekeekoot explained that “so many people wanted to participate because they were personally affected by what happened. All of us had friends or family members who were in residential schools and everybody is really waking up to the definition of intergenerational trauma.” 

The fast was a ceremony that was healing for the men involved. “On the first day of the fast with the Elder,” Peekeekoot detailed, “we all made tobacco ties and we attached our prayers during the four day fast to these tobacco ties, which we committed to the fire on the fourth day.” These prayers were for “the family of the people who are here” and “even the other people in prisons,” he explained. 

In a recent discussion of Indigenous prisoner hunger strikes, Métis/Cree scholar and organizer Mike Gouldhawke explained, “Maybe when non-Native prisoners do a hunger strike, they’re not thinking of it as a spiritual thing. They’re thinking of it as just a tactic to meet a certain goal. But I think for Indigenous prisoners, there’s the spiritual aspect, because we would have fasting in our culture already, before prisons ever were brought to this territory.”

Following the fast at Pacific Institution, there was a feast and round dance around the sacred fire. “It was a really touching ceremony… It was really good,” Peekeekoot said. The round dance brings the community together in “unity and non-judgement and brotherhood…. It signifies strength and lasting commitment, and a celebration of unity.”  

“It sure lit a fire under people,” Peekeekoot continued. “There’s a new focus and strengthened ambition for people in here…. The Aboriginal personnel, the staff, are coming more frequently and they’re making themselves more available. I notice people exploring different resources. Just exercising their rights more…. Seeing them speaking up for themselves in a way that wasn’t there before…. People are walking with a different pride.”

Solidarity Beyond Bars

In addition to the fasts and hunger strikes by prisoners, there were a number of solidarity actions organized by family members, advocates, and abolitionists on the outside. 

Otipémsiw-iskwéw Molly Swain, a member of Free Lands Free Peoples, explained in an interview with Perilous that supporters need to “stand in solidarity and support prisoner actions,” while recognizing that “this is a survivor-led movement coming from the inside.” 

“One of the big ways that the system works to oppress people on the inside is by making it very, very difficult for communication between the inside and the outside, between folks inside the prison and the broader public. Supporting by doing the action and by being public about your support and encouraging others is, I think, really important,” Swain added.   

Advocates from Beyond Prison Walls Canada, True North Radio, and Inmates 4 Humane Conditions came together on July 1 to engage in a one-day solidarity fast.

A member of True North Radio shared with Perilous her reasons for participating in the fast, commenting on its spiritual dimension: “This connects us, this works to connect us all in an unseen way,” she said. “The lost children are the adult detainees. It’s like a parallel, like bringing those two worlds together.”

“I was proud to stand with them,” she said. “They are doing honour while they’re caged. They are doing honour while they’re caged under the same genocidal policies that murdered their ancestors.”

On the east side of the country, a demonstration took place on July 2 outside Nova Institution in Truro, Nova Scotia. In a public statement, organizers from the Abolition Coalition explained that “the event was organized to honour those inside the women’s prison and to recognize that colonization is ongoing through the federal penitentiary system.”

Demonstrators at the event were joined by water defenders and members of Grassroots Grandmothers, protectors of the Shubenacadie River. Protestors chanted and sang, and grandmother Darlene Gilbert “advocat[ed] for the healing and decarceration of Indigenous women everywhere.”

“Following the action, the group gathered at the river, drawing the connection between the ongoing removal of Indigenous people from land through policing and criminalization, as well as the environmental destruction of those territories,” the Abolition Coalition statement continued. 

In downtown Toronto, Ontario, the Tkaronto Four Directions Circle, a grassroots collective, has joined together to reclaim Indigenous land, culture, and spiritual practices in solidarity with those who have been removed from their lands and communities through carceral systems. On July 1, members of the group engaged in a 24-hour fast at Dufferin Grove Park in solidarity with the prisoners, “praying for them, offering that tobacco to that fire and sending them that love, that protection and healing,” Dina Kayseas, who is Council Chair of the Four Directions Circle, relayed in an interview with Perilous. 

“We have a sacred fire going here for those 215-plus murdered and missing Indigenous children… and for community to heal with each other in a good way, and walk with each other in a good way,” Kayseas explained.

“Those inmates in there,” she stressed, “they’re not only going through what we’re going through, but they’re going through it in such a deep way because they’re locked away from their family. They have no support system in there, so they came together in solidarity to bring awareness and to honour those children.”

As of July 8, the fire at Dufferin Grove Park continues. 

“We’re standing together in solidarity to keep it going,” she noted. “We also have other educational teachings going on. We have silk-screen t-shirt printing, we’re going to have beading. We’re going to have storytelling, drum teachings, song teachings, and fire teachings. It’s all going to come together in synchronicity.” 

Abby Stadnyk is a contributing writer to Perilous Chronicle based in Edmonton, AB, Canada. Follow her on Twitter: @AbbyStadnyk

Header Photo: Demonstrators gather outside Nova Institution on July 2. (Photo credit: El Jones).