INDIGENOUS PEOPLES SOLIDARITY: “...To proclaim freedom for the prisoners” -- Settler colonialism and deaths in custody

23 December 2016
INDIGENOUS PEOPLES SOLIDARITY: “...To proclaim freedom for the prisoners” -- Settler colonialism and deaths in custody

by Chuck Wright

Recently my team mate Kathy and I attended an information picket outside the Manitoba Government and Employees Union - representing correctional officers in Manitoba - to demand accountability for deaths in custody at the Winnipeg Remand Centre (WRC). MGEU has an opportunity to utilize their union’s power to exert real pressure on Manitoba Justice to make public the results of the WRC’s internal investigations and hold their members accountable. However, by shirking this responsibility, urging the public to “reserve judgment” until “all the facts are in” - facts that may never see the light of day - and passing the buck to government policies (many of which are a definite source of the problem), they have been complicit in these deaths.

Protesting in the snow

Amidst sign-holding and passing out handbills, I was struck by busyness of rush hour and how easy it was for drivers and pedestrians alike to simply ignore our group standing outside in the cold with messages, such as “stop murdering prisoners.” Of course, we got the odd honk of support and pedestrians who showed some interest and politeness, but it still felt symbolic of the ability of people to tune out of the systems of violence operating in our own city.

The info picket was part of the Justice for Errol Greene campaign, which has been holding vigils and protests in support of Errol Greene’s family and others who have died in custody at WRC. Since March, five people have died in custody at WRC, four of them Indigenous. Errol Greene leaves behind his wife, Rochelle Pranteau, and four children after the guards denied him his epileptic medication and restrained him while he had a seizure.

At a panel discussion on deaths in custody recently held at the Thunderbird House, founding director of Ka Ni Kaanichihk and anti-colonial community organizer, Leslie Spillett, emphasized that the prison as part of the “colonial project that seeks to remove Indigenous peoples off the land.” As a matter of fact, only 11 miles north of Winnipeg sits Stony Mountain Institution that imprisoned two great Indigenous leaders during the northwest resistance of the mid-1880s - Chief Big Bear and Chief Poundmaker – whose health deteriorated in jail and died shortly after being released.

While we may think of prisons as a place for “criminals” generally, it is no coincidence that 70% of those incarcerated in Manitoba are Indigenous.

As Tracy Booth, a Mohawk social worker and justice advocate, expressed, “it is horrifically sad for me that as an Indigenous woman at the centre of Turtle Island that this is the situation.” Last year, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, Howard Sapers, raised the alarm that Indigenous women make up 35% of the female prison population although they only represent four percent of the general population.

If the goal of settler colonialism seeks to erase of Indigenous presence on these lands, prisons are “just part of the genocide…and a planned outcome,” as Spillett stated. “We’re being killed by this colonial system,” she lamented.

The presence of family members on the panel who’d lost loved ones in custody impressed upon the audience the pain that incarceration and death in custody causes families. Chantel Quill, a business student and member of Sapotaweyak Cree Nation, emphasized that these are “deeply loved people even though they’re incarcerated.” Her brother died of a preventable illness in custody, and she shared about the anxiety, depression, anger, trauma, and exhaustion that ensued from trying to find answers.

To illustrate the lack of transparency and accountability of prisons, Quill held up a report she received from Corrections Canada with most of the lines blacked out.  

There is no accountability and people are treated as expendable,” said Quill. Only after months of protest, has Manitoba’s Chief Medical Examiner informed Pranteau that they would call an inquest into the suspicious circumstances surrounding Errol’s death.

As I sat down to write this article amidst the celebratory mood of Christmas, the words “freedom for the prisoners” came to mind. And I thought, “hey, didn’t Jesus purportedly claim this was the good news he was bringing to the world?” While I’m not one to quote Bible verses, it seems to me there is a political message here attributed to a Palestinian Jew living under Roman occupation. As such, it strikes me as a convenience for settlers to simply interpret this as a spiritual message – a similar convenience that enables settlers to ignore the violent oppression of Indigenous peoples in our midst.

Although it presents some unsettling questions, I think we should entertain the radical meaning of Jesus’ message of freedom for prisoners. Approached with a structural understanding of settler colonialism, we may come to a better understanding of Leslie Spillet’s analysis that “it’s not the people that need to be fixed, it’s the system.”

Chuck Wright is a full-time member of CPT-Indigenous Peoples Solidarity project and settler residing in Winnipeg/Treaty 1 territory.