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Organizing for prison abolition and racial justice on the Canadian Prairies

Advocacy groups are showing why demands for a radical rethink of the prison system are more than just lofty rhetoric

Canadian PoliticsIndigenous PoliticsHuman RightsSocial Movements

Stony Mountain Institution, a federal prison located about 25 kilometres north of Winnipeg. Indigenous men make up 65 percent of the inmate population. Photo courtesy Winnipeg Love Hate.

The Canadian Prairies remain a sprawling example of disproportionate incarceration rates and profoundly troubling conditions for inmates—made only worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, a vast enclave of organizations have found solidarity under the banner of the Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Alberta Abolition Coalition (SMAAC), which aims to address and correct the abuses and systemic racism that are widespread in these provinces’ justice systems.

The genesis of this partnership stems from a network of individual groups that have been fighting for prisoner rights across the Prairies, particularly for Indigenous peoples. SMAAC was formed with a specific focus on western Canada, as the majority of abolition organizations tend to be situated in major population centres around the country, leaving the Prairies somewhat overlooked.

“If it’s in Ontario, it’s Toronto. If it’s in Québec, it’s Montréal and likewise in Halifax and Vancouver,” says SMAAC member Molly Swain. “But, there hasn’t been a lot of organizing in the Prairies—not that a lot of folks have been hearing about. Even though there are a lot of organizations doing that work. The mandate that brought us together was to engage in public education around anti-colonial penal abolition.”

Swain is a representative for Free Lands Free Peoples, an Alberta-based abolitionist organization and a key player within SMAAC. Its most recent focus is addressing how the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately impacted prisons across the Prairies. Inmates throughout the region were often left helpless as the safety measures issued to fight the pandemic were unattainable within modern prison settings.

“COVID really sparked a wave amongst prison [organizers] across North America,” confirms Swain, “and that has been amazing, seeing folks come together in solidarity on the inside, often guided by explicitly Indigenous values of relationality and kinship.”

This kinship is the adhesive that binds SMAAC, as its origins can be traced back to an artist-led fundraiser in 2020, where various poets, musicians and activists assembled virtually to discuss alternatives to incarceration and a radical rethink of the prison system.

Serenity Joo, a member of SMAAC, an associate with the Prison Libraries Committee of Manitoba and a member of Prairie Asian Organizers, was able to see the momentum behind the organization’s inception first-hand.

“That was the first project that brought us together,” she recalls. “It has been really great being part of a coalition where people bring a wide range of tools to the table, and really understand the labour of this type of work and not take it for granted.”

Over the last year, SMAAC has been sharing ideas and resources on a regular basis, ensuring that those within its organization are kept up to date on developments within the prairie prison system.

Yet, while relationships between organizations within SMAAC secures the circulation of ideas and initiatives, it doesn’t change the fact that each prairie province has dynamically different issues within their respective penal structures.

Events such as the recent hunger strike in Alberta—undertaken in protest to the abysmal living conditions of inmates—or the increasing rate of incarcerated Indigenous individuals in Manitoba and Saskatchewan—making up 75 percent of overall admissions to jails in both provinces—highlight the systematic problems produced by carceral systems across the Prairies. They also expose how inmates at Prairie prisons and jails are suffering relative to those locked up in other parts of the country.

“It’s not as much imposing the idea that this is what prison abolition looks like. It’s more a long process of relationship building and learning that even though the pandemic was a crisis, there has been a crisis of Indigenous imprisonment since the 1950s,” says Bronwyn Dobchuck-Land, a member of SMAAC and a representative for Bar None, a Manitoba-based rideshare initiative created to ensure the family members of inmates can get to prisons for regular visits.

SMAAC was formed with a focus on western Canada, as the majority of abolition organizations tend to be situated in major population centres around the country, leaving the Prairies overlooked. Photo from Pixabay.

Bar None was created to deal with limitations imposed by the current Manitoba prison structure, in which most facilities are situated far beyond city limits, out of reach of public transit systems that could ferry visitors to and from the prisons. These shortcomings were seemingly made worse by the pandemic until members within SMAAC reached out to Bar None.

“When the pandemic started, jails and prisons were locked down to visitors, support, aid or surveillance. There was work done by abolitionist groups all across Canada and Free Lands Free Peoples reached out to us,” says Dobchuck-Land. “We found that there was a shared interest in developing regionally specific responses.”

Last summer, Free Lands Free Peoples launched its Prairie Province Prisoner Support Fund, an emergency fund that 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.”

In response to the disproportionate incarceration of Indigenous peoples, a large portion of SMAAC’s membership DNA consists of Indigenous rights organizations, as well as abolitionists.

“We’re really interested in centring on the anti-colonial analysis, specifically colonial functions that are present in policing. That’s not to say that we consider ourselves totally separate from other forms of abolition—far from it. Part of showing that has been reaching out to other individuals and parties in relation to abolitionist work,” says Swain.

SMAAC’s existence as an independent entity within Canada’s network of prison abolitionists does not diminish its commitment to a broader national strategy, as those within the organization say the movement is far greater than the sum of its parts.

“The consensus was that we don’t want to divide this larger abolitionist movement,” says Joo. “I think anyone working in abolition in North America owes so much to Black radical thinkers and Black feminist thinkers. There isn’t a desire to be distinguished against. It’s more [about being rooted] in how abolition will play out.”

SMAAC has spent the last year getting its footing and establishing its goals and ideology. What the next year will showcase is what the organization aims to accomplish with its network and ideas.

“I think there’s still a lot of work to do,” confirms Dobchuck-Land. “One of the things we’ve talked about is what a regionally specific analysis could contribute. There’s a lot of Indigenous-led organizing happening in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, that don’t call themselves abolitionists necessarily but are building up responses to social problems that don’t rely on carceral intervention.”

“A lot of the work is figuring out what is already being done and what communities have been doing to keep prisoners alive.”

Jake Pesaruk is a freelance reporter of all trades, focusing on arts, politics and investigative features. Originally from Alberta, he currently resides in Toronto.


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