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Fighting for prison abolition across the Prairies: an interview with Free Lands Free Peoples organizer Karrie Auger

Canadian PoliticsIndigenous PoliticsHuman RightsCOVID-19

Barbed wire along a prison wall. Photo from iStock.

Along with the North, the Prairies is the most heavily incarcerated region in the country.

Canada has a national incarceration rate of 83 adults per 100,000 people. Each of the Prairie provinces well exceeds this: Alberta with 111, Saskatchewan with 207, and Manitoba with 231. In the latter two provinces, Indigenous people make up three-quarters of all inmates, despite only comprising 15 percent of the general population.

Prisoners and anti-carceral activists have long sounded the alarm on the catastrophic fallout of this situation: deaths, sickness, and awful living conditions.

COVID-19 massively escalated those concerns even more. Everything public health officials were warning that people do to avoid transmission—social distancing, wearing a mask, frequently washing hands—is physically impossible while incarcerated.

Carceral facilities in the Prairies weren’t hit as badly as the Federal Training Centre or Joliette Institution in Quebec, or Mission Institution in British Columbia, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem: two prisoners in the Calgary Remand Centre tested positive with COVID-19 in May. It’s had many other significant impacts as well: visits from loved ones have been suspended, prisoners have been confined to their cells for almost 24 hours a day, and correctional officers have been accused of failing to wear personal protective equipment (PPE). A prisoner in Saskatchewan Penitentiary told CBC: “It’s pretty much like a death trap. We’re pretty much sitting, waiting … it’s a lot of what-ifs, and a lot of this and that, a lot of worries. And then we got to go back in our cells and worry about this stuff.”

It is within this context—which has resulted in the early release of some prisoners—that the Edmonton-based abolitionist organization Free Lands Free Peoples launched its Prairie Province Prisoner Support Fund, an emergency fund that has raised over $23,000 to distribute to “recently released prisoners, those still inside, and the families of people still incarcerated in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.”

Free Lands Free Peoples is also a founding member of the brand new Saskatchewan-Manitoba-Alberta Abolition Coalition (SMAAC), which is organizing an online fundraiser on Thursday, June 18, in support of the Prairie Province Prisoner Support Fund. Along with Free Lands Free Peoples and Winnipeg’s Bar None, which currently make up SMAAC, the event is being organized with members of Manitoba’s Prison Library Committee and abolitionists from Saskatchewan.

Canadian Dimension spoke with Karrie Auger, an amiskwaciwâskahikan (Edmonton) organizer with Free Lands Free Peoples. Auger is nehiyaw (Cree) and her family is originally from Treaty 8 territory.

Canadian Dimension: How did Free Lands Free Peoples first start?

Karrie Auger: Free Lands Free People started about a year ago. It happened after a creative writing class that Nancy, one of the other co-organizers, and I were facilitating; we facilitate a creative writing class with men on the inside. Nancy and I had been talking about the need for more prison abolition work and awareness in the prairies, for a while because I had been doing critical prison research for her over the past two summers. After one of these classes — on the way home, in this really dark and really painful reality of the harms that the prison system causes — it was in that moment, in conversation, when we were like “we just have to do this group, we just have to make it happen.”

There were not a lot of conversations about abolition in the Prairies, and there was even less, I would say, Indigenous-led anti-colonial abolition work that was happening. Although I would say, there is a lot of work with abolition aims without explicitly identifying it as such. In this conversation, we were thinking about who we would want to be a part of the group and Molly’s name, the other core organizer, was brought up. Molly and Nancy had had conversations about abolition as well in the past and we all knew each other from the academic and art community. I just sent an email to Molly and said “Hey, we want to start this abolition group, would you be interested?” And we met up and had our first meeting.

For the past year, up until the fundraiser, we’ve really been spending our time doing the groundwork and laying the foundation of what Free Lands Free Peoples is and what it could be in the future, and really wanting to make sure that we were grounding the work that we did in being in good relations to each other and to the community so that hopefully, eventually, the group would be something that could expand in good and meaningful ways.

CD: Why was it important for Free Lands Free Peoples to specifically fundraise for prisoner support during COVID-19?

KA: What we had initially planned to do was a podcast. Because of the COVID-19 restrictions, the podcast got put on hold. In the meantime, we decided as a group it was a good time to start organizing something, that was sort of in reflection to the other abolition work that was happening as a response to the inaction of the Canadian government for prisoners on the inside during the pandemic.

There is a fundraiser from the Prison Abolition Organizing Group in Ontario: the Prisoner Emergency Support Fund. Nancy suggested that it would be great to bring something similar into the Prairies, because their fundraiser is specific to Ontario. They were really gracious in allowing us to use their template for their GoFundMe and let us edit it as we needed to. The reason for this particular fundraiser was because it was becoming increasingly stark the conditions that prisoners were facing on the inside. At a time when all of us were being directed by the government to social distance and stay at home and wear PPE in crowded spaces: there’s just no way that prisoners can do that. They’re in extremely overcrowded, unsanitary conditions. The support that they were given, if any at all, was just so limited and simply not enough.

At the same time, because prisoners were at much higher risk to contract COVID-19, abolitionist groups across Canada were calling for decarceration to protect the people on the inside. For the people that have been released, there has been very limited support put in place to ensure their basic needs would be met. It was a response to that: a feeling for the three of us, of a deep responsibility to get care to people who were on the inside and the people who were released, and their families as well.

Plan of the Ground Floor, Belfast Gaol/Crumlin Road Prison, drawn by Charles Lanyon. Image courtesy the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland/Flickr.

CD: The support fund seems to have done really well: it’s now at over $23,000. Were you surprised at the level of support from the community for this?

KA: I would say no: if the fundraiser had other abolition aims, I think the support might have been a little bit different. But I think the way people were experiencing this sort of collective fear and uncertainty really raised people’s sense of compassion and empathy. I think alongside those feelings was a shared reality for many that was sort of grounded in this mindset of having to support each and doing all this mutual aid to protect the collective—meant people were more inclined to donate because our fundraiser was really centred around a sort of obvious sense of care.

Then again, it really did peter off after a short while. I would say we got a second surge of funds coming in very quickly — and this is just my speculation but I think it was correlated with what was happening in the world — at the time of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis and the powerful voices of black people (and allies) speaking out loudly against police violence. I think there was a sort of collective critical analysis, for many individuals for the first time, of really opening up to the truth of the extreme harms caused by the penal system. Although our fundraiser is not directly related to police violence, I imagine that people were starting to connect the dots of the extreme harm of the penal system that exists globally, and that includes right here in the Prairies.

CD: Why is prison abolition such a core part of the group’s mandate, as opposed to more liberal reforms that try to improve the state of prisons?

KA: The easiest way to explain why we need abolition as a global project and vision for the future is that reform is not addressing any of the roots of the penal system. At the root is violence. No amount of reform would ever change that. Abolition is an alternative for people to move away from and stop conflating justice with punitive logic, which only creates more harm for our communities and does nothing to keep us safer as reform would have us believe. Abolition is also an opportunity to imagine and work to create a world that is rooted in, being in good relations, responsible to each other, and that includes real accountability, something that does not happen in the penal system, despite the widespread belief that it does.

Stony Mountain Institution, a federal multi-security facility located about 18 kilometres from Winnipeg. Photo from Flickr.

Right now, there’s this rhetoric that the system is broken and all we need to do is patch it up by having better trained cops, culturally relevant programs on the inside, police body cameras, etc. All of these things play into the idea that the system is broken. But the system isn’t broken. The system, at its core, is inherently violent. It has been maintained with the same aims it was created with. And that is to isolate and contain BIPOC and other marginalized groups. In terms of Free Lands Free Peoples, in the “Canadian” context, and the anti-colonial context it’s really important that we also consider that the prison system in itself is a function of colonialism. It’s a direct violation and undermining of Indigenous sovereignty.

Nehiyaw Indigenous justice traditions are grounded and centred in this belief of wahkohtowin. Wahkohtowin is this understanding that everything is interconnected. Within wahkohtowin is miyo-wîcêhtowin. Miyo-wîcêhtowin is to be in good relations. This way of being in the world, is antithetical to the current penal system that we have in “Canada”. As an Indigenous person, doing anti-colonial abolition work, I really try to ground this work in remembering that we cannot be in good relations within the current penal system that we have in “Canada”.

CD: There’s the upcoming fundraiser on June 18 for the prisoner support fund, and it will also help launch SMAAC. I’m really interested in this idea of uniting struggles throughout the Prairies because obviously there are a lot of similarities in terms of policing and incarceration. From your perspective, what kind of similarities are there between struggles in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba — and why do you think it’s important to bring those struggles together in this form?

KA: We are really just at the beginning of understanding and thinking through the capacities and potential for SMAAC. One of those things is going to be doing a lot of work to deepen our understanding of the ways our experiences in the Prairie provinces are connected and how they continue to maintain and enforce very specific regional experiences for BIPOC people and other marginalized groups.

The Prairies have a political and social consciousness that is really built around a couple of things. There’s this myth that has sort of existed in the Prairies of settlement of the frontier, and this vast land that was really open and ready to be received by new settlers. These stories really erased the actual history of these spaces and the history of the extreme violence that Indigenous peoples experienced while they were being dispossessed from their land which was in these spaces.

Artwork by Spark Poster

Obviously racism against Indigenous peoples (and other racialized groups) exist all across so-called “Canada”. In the prairies specifically, I would say there’s a sort of heightened racism that exists in relationship between Indigenous peoples and policing and the penal system. The RCMP was really created and mobilized in ways to enforce and contain and violently dispossess Indigenous peoples from their lands so that people could settle here. On the other side of that, there’s this existing belief that with settlement came the right to claim spaces, to protect settlers and settler belief systems, from Indigenous bodies (and other racialized groups). This narrative really still permeates the so-called justice system in Canada. And we’ve seen it time and time again throughout the provinces in the ways that Indigenous bodies are targeted, contained, and murdered, through the justification of this narrative.

A lot of the work I do, I look specifically at Indigenous peoples in the context of doing anti-colonial work as a nehiyaw woman, and I acknowledge that I am still learning so much about the experience of BIPOC and other marginalized groups. A lot of this work is such a process of learning and unlearning. One of the beautiful things about SMAAC is that it’s really giving us the opportunity to do that learning together. There are so many histories and stories from the different peoples in this area, that will help us to better understand not just the ways that BIPOC and other marginalized communities have continued to be targeted and to experience extreme forms of violence by the prison system. But also ways that the organizing and mobilization and resistance from these groups that have really been pushing back and fighting against policing and the prison system in Canada. We also have an opportunity to learn from Indigenous justice systems that can inform our movement and give us insight and guidance to help us move towards the future we are imagining and creating together.

Although there are ways that we experience and understand policing and the prison system that are similar, I think that the root of our specific histories can really lend for us to have a more rounded perspective to make the movement louder and amplify our collective experiences and our differences that have brought us to these places of doing abolition work.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

“Talking smaac: A night of poetry, song, and abolition” is happening on Thursday, June 18, starting at 7:30 PM Central Time. It is being hosted in support of the Prairie Province Prisoner Support Fund. It is being hosted by Issa Kixen (Winnipeg) and includes performances by ecoaborijanelle (Little Pine First Nation), K’alii Luyyaltkw (amiskwâciwaskahikan), melannie monoceros (Winnipeg), Shima Robinson (amiskwâciwaskahikan), and Super Duty Tough Work (Winnipeg). The event will be closed-captioned. Tune in via livestream here.

James Wilt is a freelance journalist and graduate student based in Winnipeg. He is a frequent contributor to CD, and has also written for Briarpatch, Passage, The Narwhal, National Observer, Vice Canada, and the Globe and Mail. James is the author of the recently published book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars? Public Transit in the Age of Google, Uber, and Elon Musk (Between the Lines Books). He organizes with the police abolitionist organization Winnipeg Police Cause Harm. You can follow him on Twitter at @james_m_wilt.


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