I recently had the pleasure and honour of a 30 minute audience with Hon. Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, and the man in charge of the colonial carceral system, Hon. Ralph Goodale, Minister of Public Safety, when they toured Sagatay, a transitional house for aboriginal men in Toronto that also provides five Day Parole beds to CSC. It’s not every day a prison abolitionist agenda forwarding alternatives to incarceration gets heard by the highest colonial representatives while they are standing in a model of healing so different from the traumas of prison.
Here is the letter I left them with:
26 Vaughan Rd.
Toronto, ON, M6G 2C4
Hon. Ralph Goodale
Minister of Public Safety
November 27, 2016
Dear Mr. Goodale,
I am one of the CSC clients currently residing at Sagatay. I am also a published writer and activist under the nom de guerre Chester Abbotsbury within the Penal Abolitionist movement. I would like quickly to convey my great pleasure that you are visiting Sagatay today, as I see this wonderful, positive, healing space as a viable alternative to incarceration.
Sagatay is unique in many ways, and while I hope that you can see the value in allowing the over represented and poorly treated[i] Indigenous prison population to connect with their culture in order to address the underlying traumas, deficits, and social conditions that brought them there, I think that it also provides a good model to use throughout the penal system. Restorative means of Justice, and especially our “Circle” model, allow for far more desirable outcomes when someone falls outside of our society’s agreed upon boundaries.
When someone is pushed or ventures beyond social norms in a criminal manner, there is a disconnect in the penal ideology, whereby those who have fallen astray are thought to become better people by pushing them further away instead of back into the circle. People who have suffered horrible traumas, and we know that the overwhelming majority of incarcerates are victims of childhood abuse, are not in any way restored to social function by isolating them and depriving them of the love and connection that forms the root cause of their transgressions.
Instead, and here at Sagatay, we need to embrace people who find it difficult or impossible to fit into our social and economic constructs. The Indigenous model allows for judicial activity that is participatory and looks to the restoration of relationships and the remedying of deficits within people and circumstances. It seeks to repair and heal, rather than to punish and isolate.
When you come home to a dog that has shat on your rug and is now sleeping on the couch, to put that pet into a cage, poke it often with a stick, and allow it only to have contact with other oppressed, unloved, and fearful dogs will not make it a better pet. I believe that there is no such thing as a criminal dog, only one that has a lack of love and attention and management in terms of expectations, skills, opportunities and behaviour.
The people in our society who fall through the cracks and end up in state incarceration are not made whole by isolating them from their loved ones, depriving them of meaningful human contact, treating them as sub-humans, and cutting them off from meaningful occupational opportunities. They are made whole in spaces like Sagatay, where counselling, healing circles, cultural attachment, love, respect, and dignity are all part of the community they participate in. These aspects of a healthy life are impossible to find in a cage.
I hope that you can see how this aspect of our wonderful Indigenous cultures, that of Circle Justice involving the whole community and restoration instead of isolation and incarceration, can be used as a model for the rest of Canadian society.
Corrections is a multi-billion dollar social institution that is predicated on a false premise. Those who come out of it and succeed in establishing their lives again after having everything taken away do so in spite of it, not because of it. My bed at Sagatay is far less expensive, far more healing, and allows me a much better opportunity to come back within the folds of social norms than an extended period of shunning.
Thank you for hearing me out,
PipeKeeper Bear, Pwagum Geniwenma Makwa
Aka “Chester Abbotsbury”
[i] Aboriginal Offenders: Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator 2014-2015
・ Aboriginal inmates are:
・ classified as higher risk and higher need in categories such as employment,
community reintegration, substance abuse and family supports
・ over-represented in segregation and maximum security populations
・ disproportionately involved in use of force interventions and prison self-injury
・ released later in their sentence
・ more likely to return to custody (either for a new offence or revocation