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Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security
Thursday, November 23, 2017
[Recorded by Electronic Apparatus]
“Indigenous People in the Correctional System”
I said that to myself and it rings in my ears like vulgar profanity,
Mostly because I'm here addressing this colonial body of the government,
Responsible for putting so many of my people into prison,
Because this is in English and not in Nakawemowin, a.k.a. the Saulteaux language of my people,
Because I don't speak my language and have to relearn it after having it taken from me.
I am doing this in poetic form because this is how I learned to use my voice.
“Indigenous people in the correctional system”
Rolls off my tongue, and I feel like I've been punched in the face all over again.
I didn't know what to think when I was invited to speak here.
What do I say?
And I thought what do I have to say, that these people with degrees and titles can't say better?
What do I say?
When you're already aware of anything that I could say to you about the stats, about the facts,
About the system that you know full well is broken.
What can I tell you,
About why my people are in prison more than any other segment of the population of this country.
What can I tell you,
That you haven't read about
In a million plus one reports.
It was always about where to begin,
How to begin,
Not what to say.
If you're native...
If you're native in this country you know someone in your family is in prison.
If you're native,
That's a fact.
If you're native,
That's the reality of growing up in this country.
And if you're unfortunate enough to be Indigenous and find yourself going to prison,
Then you know you're staying until the very end—I'll speak more about that later on—
Especially true in the Prairies
In the Prairies we know that we'd not see the light of day until our time was served and then some.
Short timers know that without a doubt, they will be there until their stat release.
They know that it's useless to take programs because if you're native—
No, that's not what I want to say—when—
When you're native, taking programs counts as nothing,
Nothing at all to the parole board,
Counts as nothing to your parole officer,
Counts as nothing to anyone working inside of CSC,
Counts as nothing, nothing,
Except futility and the death of hope.
And that's the cruel joke—or maybe it's not a joke,
But the official “unofficial” narrative.
We know that's the point too.
We know that's the point of putting us there in droves.
We know that's the point of sending us to jail, to prison.
We know that's the point of keeping us there.
We know that's the point of the correctional system in this country.
The justice system's mission is to breed the ideal of futility in the native person.
Correctional services canada was mandated to
Eviscerate hope from the native spirit..
And to the native person in Canada,
Jail is just another word for genocide.
To the aboriginal person in Canada,
Incarceration is just another word for genocide.
To the Indian person in Canada,
Prison is just another word for genocide.
To the indigenous person in Canada,
Rehabilitation is just another word for residential school.
Take us from our families, just like residential schools.
Scatter us from our communities, just like adopting us out across the world in the sixties scoop.
Remove us from our culture, just like outlawing our cultural practices.
Dictate what culture we have access too, creating laws to say what we can practise,
How much culture, when and where and who with, just like the Indian agents.
Sell the lie of hope that if we take programs, we'll earn early freedom.
Sell the lie of life that if we behave, we'll earn early freedom.
Sell the lie that all prisoners are equal.
Sell the lie of being able to start over.
Sell the lie of getting out to something better than that which we were taken from.
Sell the lie, sell the lie, sell the lies.
When I was young, I looked at my life inside and wanted something different.
I said “I'm not going to die here.”
I said “I'm not going to end up like that grey-haired old man broken down, bent, and worn down here.”
“This isn't where I end.”
“This isn't where my story ends, finishes for me.”
When I was young, I knew I was messed up.
When I was a youth, I knew that I needed help.
I knew I'd never get out unless I did something to change.
I knew that if I wanted to leave, I didn't want to leave messed up.
I knew that I needed help and so I took what help was there.
And that help was useless.
And that help was worthless.
I took breaking barriers.
I passed through cognitive skills.
I worked through anger management.
I participated in anger and emotions management.
I took the ABC program and just like so many,
The list goes on for Indigenous offenders taking programming
That CSC and the parole board give but absolutely no one cares about.
So why take it at all?
Because if you don't, there really is no hope.
I was told when requesting breaking barriers that I was a lifer and it was denied to me.
So why participate at all?
Because if you don't, there is no chance.
I was told that I would not be given access to programming until my day parole eligibility.
So why try at all?
Because if we don't, we can't lie to ourselves and believe in hope.
I was told that short-timers received programming before lifers.
Why sit in programming?
Because we still had the illusion that it matters to.
I was told that I didn't need to worry about programming and that I was fine as I was,
that my time would come for programming in about eight years.
We as inmates start with the visceral cognitive phantasm of belief that yes it matters,
That it matters to anyone on that side of the table,
But it doesn't matter.
It doesn't matter.
It doesn't matter because the parole board doesn't care about our programming.
It doesn't matter because the parole board knows we're native and that the system will bring us right back.
Breach us and in we go again.
It doesn't matter because the system only exists as long as there are prisoners to put through it.
Native people are easy to breach because no one cares if we're in prison.
Because if we're all locked up, then no one has to feel guilty for stealing our land.
Because if we're all locked up then no one has to feel bad about small pox blankets;
No one has to worry about our land rights, our safe unsafe drinking water;
No one has to think about the sixties scoop children taken away because we were born native`;
No one has to feel a thing about the residential schools and the children molested there,
The children murdered there,
The children whose souls were ripped from them,
The children whose spirits were leeched away until they were husks sent back to the reserve.
It doesn't matter, because if we're locked up,
No one has to feel bad about anything sacred taken from us.
It doesn't matter if we take programs; it doesn't matter because no one cares about criminals.
And it doesn't matter because
That's what the system does: it makes entire generations of my people criminal,
And therefore in the eyes and hearts of mainstream non-indigenous society,
Good for nothing criminals that no one wants to associate with,
Or look upon,
Give a job to,
Give a chance to,
Or respect the rights of, because once upon a time,
We went to prison,
And therefore forfeited all rights of belonging to humanity evermore.
The system is wielded against my people as a weapon of genocide far more effective than residential schools,
Because it's made the average citizen think of natives as criminals first and foremost,
Because that is the lie being sold to the people of this country.
So that brings us to accessing mental health services,
And all I can say here is this:
They aren't given access because non-indigenous offenders are given priority,
Even in the Prairies where up to 75% of the inmates are indigenous.
Then again there's never enough psychologists in any given prison to begin with,
And this is who you have decided to entrust the psychological well-being of the convicts to:
Overworked, underqualified people, who by default are set up by the system to fail.
Those are the people you call mental health services,
And they can't help you in prison,
Because they don't know what it is that you're dealing with,
Because they only imagine the horror and torment that you face every day,
Most of it from the prison staff, the guards that hold all your rights in their hands.
They can strip you of those rights, any time, anywhere.
They can physically strip you any time; they can deny you everything.
They can beat you to unconsciousness on a whim; evidence and reason can be and is manufactured,
And that is a daily occurrence in prison.
Then there is the hostility of 1,000 men or more living in a confined space,
Who are angry for being there,
Who are resentful for being there,
Who grew up in abusive homes,
Who grew up with families and role models that failed them,
Failed to teach them right from wrong.
And then you have the indigenous prisoner who more than likely was
Arrested because they were native,
Charged because they were native,
And/or grew up in abusive homes because their parents and grandparents survived residential school,
Who became, because of that, role models without any idea of how to be a positive role model,
Who instead found themselves outsiders in their own homes,
Their own communities,
Because they spoke white,
Because they only thought white,
Because that's what was beaten into them.
And those beatings taught them to beat their children in order to teach those children
How to be healthy-minded, loving people.
And so the genocidal cycle of how to kill off the native people
Was reincarnated whole, as prison
And generations of indigenous people have found themselves
Growing up in youth prisons,
Graduating to adult prison,
Where they are surrounded by non-indigenous jailers.
Where they are cut off from culture, from people,
Where everyone around them that they are forced to live with are resentful,
Angry, frustrated, confused, full of bitterness and rage, and hatred,
With no access to adequate mental health resources,
With outdated programming designed by social workers that have never been to prison,
Social workers who had angry citizens in mind when they designed those breaking barriers programs,
Those cognitive skills, anger management and a myriad of programming just like those,
Because in prison you do have time to count backwards from 20 in a hostile situation to deal with your anger, your emotions—
No, actually, you don't.
Because in prison the situations covered in those programs really do apply to prison reality—
Again, no, they don't.
And if you're native in the Prairies or anywhere else in Canada,
You find yourself at the end of the line waiting for those mental health services,
And you have to wait so very long to gain access,
Access that non-indigenous prisoners have from the beginning.
I'm a bit frustrated with knowing all this for having lived it.
I'm no longer bitter about it, though.
I'm no longer seething about it.
I got out on my own terms, and I had some very vital help,
Not from CSC; no, Correctional Services Canada had very little to do with my getting out,
With my becoming the person I am now.
Instead I did all of that with a lot help from my friends out here,
Who guided me, who taught me how to be human.
I also wasn't one of those indigenous people that shouldn't have been arrested.
No, I am guilty of my crime and I live with that and will always hold that close to me.
It gives me strength when life out here gets hard and depressing for it can be so much so,
Guilt and the need to do better, to be better, to be more than just a survivor.
In getting out I learned some things about the system,
About how to succeed out here.
I learned that you see the world as you saw it when you last saw it.
If you went in when you were 18,
Then you see the world again through the memory of your 18-year-old eyes,
And you see it through the mind of the 35-year-old getting out,
And somehow those two perceptions need to harmonize and find their balance.
No one talks about that,
Because no one knows about it.
I learned that I had PTSD,
And so does everyone else, to some degree or another, when they get out.
It's from always being on edge, always on guard, always waiting for something to happen.
No one talks about that,
Because no one knows about it.
There once was a system in place for lifers, those convicted of murder, for when they were released.
LifeLine it was called and needs to be once more.
LifeLine provided employment for about a hundred or so lifers on parole.
Their job: to help lifers reintegrate back into society.
Lifers are uniquely qualified to aid other lifers in getting out of prison,
Because they know exactly what those being released are going through,
What the new parolee will go through.
It was a far more useful program for rehabilitation and reintegration than anything else.
And what of lifers?
Why should they be given such a chance at employment?
Why should they be given such positions of trust?
Why should they have such authority and sometimes autonomy?
Because unlike all other convicts, only lifers have to go through years of psychological testing,
Years of proving time and time again that they have changed,
Years of reports and assessments from every aspect of their prison life,
Before they are even given a chance to begin reintegration.
They have to take the programs.
They have to pass them too.
They have to be model prisoners.
They have to be role models.
They have to prove again and again in every situation that they will not commit a crime again.
Short-timers don't have to do anything and they will just get out.
Also, if you're indigenous as a short-timer, it still doesn't matter if you take the programming,
You're still going to remain inside prison until your stat.
Only lifers have to prove over time that they have truly changed.
And change is what it's about.
So let's pretend for a moment that programs work and are of real value for being relevant.
If that were the case,
The system will need many more people qualified to run them,
Truly qualified to run them.
Those programs need to be created for prisoners,
To address prison-related situations.
And for indigenous prisoners, that means making them culturally appropriate.
I don't mean just slapping feathers and medicine wheels throughout the workbooks;
I mean actually culturally appropriate in a societal context:
Inuit programming for Inuits, Métis for Métis, first nations for first nations,
And taught by their people,
Not just by indigenous program facilitators either,
With our medicine people along with those indigenous facilitators,
With our elders, be those elders Métis, Inuit or first nations.
There is power in the voice and the person that teaches the way
These programs need to be offered to all indigenous prisoners from the get-go.
Nothing is gained by waiting.
Indigenous lifer's need to be taking part in an indigenous lifeline program:
Métis for Métis, Inuit for Inuit and first nations for first nations.
And the Elders need to be involved in these programs.
The actual communities need to be involved in these programs.
If you hold a program for indigenous prisoners about healthy living and healthy relationships,
Then you need to have those relationships take part.
Wives and husbands, boyfriends and girlfriends, teens and children take part,
Because this all begins where it all began—with the children, with the child the prisoner was.
If you create a healing lodge for indigenous prisoners, then you need to let the community run it:
Indigenous programming for indigenous people by indigenous people,
And provide the community with the training to do so properly, efficiently, effectively.
Elders need to be community-based elders.
That means a community of indigenous people recognize the person to be an elder,
Which means CSC needs to absolutely end the practice of creating
You have no right to do so.
CSC has no right to do so.
That is spiritual appropriation and a form of gas-lighting abuse.
The community will tell you who is an elder—the community.
Indigenous society is built this way.
Indigenous philosophy is built this way.
Nothing we do, have done, will ever do is without the community,
Without the relationships we have in our circles of life,
Because we are all connected, because of this land,
Because we are all related, in spirit.