By Stewart Phillip | The Globe and Mail, October 23, 2017
Stewart Phillip is the president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs.
Mr. Trudeau, stop the residential school to solitary confinement pipeline
Survivors of residential schools carry trauma. But the trauma is also intergenerational: When caregivers of children are hurt by a genocidal system, the trauma is passed on to that child.
Canadian prisons are filled with people who carry the deepest of traumas from a young age. Many of the incarcerated are disproportionately Indigenous people, and about a third of all prisoners who are isolated in segregation cells are Indigenous.
Bobby Lee Worm, for example, is a young Indigenous woman who spent a total of 1,123 days in solitary confinement. There, she attempted to take her own life.
Ms. Worm was a witness against Canada in a recent lawsuit by the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) and John Howard Society challenging solitary confinement in federal prisons. She is a member of the Daystar First Nation, and her family are residential school survivors. Unfortunately for Bobby Lee, intergenerational trauma meant growing up surrounded by rampant abuse, poverty, and violence. At age 12, she ran away from home and started getting into trouble with the law.
Ms. Worm stated in her testimony: “Since childhood, my sense of being able to control my life has been shattered again and again. This feeling of powerlessness worsened during the years that I spent in segregation. While in segregation … I was literally powerless; every aspect of my every movement was controlled and under scrutiny. I felt like I had been thrown in a hole and left to rot.”
“Administrative segregation” is a vicious code term Canada uses for solitary confinement, when it takes people who are already incarcerated and further contains them in isolated cells. Right now, these decisions are made in the absence of evidence, with no independent oversight and no limits to how long someone can be kept in segregation.
Like Indigenous people, black people are also overrepresented in Canadian prisons and solitary cells. Andre Blair, for example, was once isolated for 363 days “for his own safety” because the guards said he was attacked by other prisoners. Mr. Blair testified that his own voice mattered little when decisions were made to place him in solitary: “When I objected to the allegations against me on the basis that there was no proof, the officer told me that he did not have to prove anything, it was not a court of law, and there was nothing I could do about it.”
In total, Mr. Blair has spent 637 days in solitary confinement.
According to the United Nations, prolonged solitary confinement is a form of torture. Experts agree that it worsens mental illness and increases the risk of suicide.
By keeping Indigenous people in solitary confinement, Canada inflicts new forms of trauma on those already suffering from the traumatic legacy of its own residential schools.
If Canada continues on this path, how is healing possible? How can reconciliation be realized?
Each of the witnesses who testified about their experience of isolation described the serious harms it caused them; for many, it aggravated pre-existing trauma.
“I realized that I was acting out because I had so much pain stored up inside me,” testified Bobby Lee “I understood that in order to move out of solitary … I had to contain all of my emotion. I became paranoid about how much emotion I was showing”
Canada recently responded to criticisms of its segregation practices with Bill C-56, but the proposed fix is meaningless. On paper, the bill would initially limit a person’s stay in solitary confinement to 15 days; however, prison officials could still extend the duration of the stay at their sole discretion. This bill does little more than create more paperwork in order to keep a person isolated in solitary confinement.
Justin Trudeau’s government speaks of reconciliation for past wrongs, but doesn’t seem to recognize its responsibility for the traumatic legacy it actively perpetuates within its own prisons.
If Justin Trudeau’s government truly wants to be responsible for ending the trauma Canada has inflicted and continues to inflict on Indigenous peoples, he must put forward real change, not what’s in C-56.