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Skyler Williams is a political prisoner

Indigenous PoliticsSocial Movements

Skyler Williams, centre, spokesperson for 1492 Land Back Lane. Photo from Twitter.

On September 16, a press conference was held outside of Toronto Mayor John Tory’s Yorkville condo building near Bloor Street and Bedford Road. People spoke who had been arrested during encampment evictions at Trinity Bellwoods Park and Lamport Stadium over the summer. Haudenosaunee political organizer and spokesperson for 1492 Landback Lane, Skyler Williams, was walking away from the press conference when he was detained for “failure to comply with recognizance.” In other words, for breaking the conditions of his bail by travelling to downtown Toronto to attend a political rally. Framed in the police press release as a dangerous and violent criminal, he should be seen instead for what he is: a political prisoner.

Williams is dangerous in the eyes of the state because he is politically active; because he refuses the shackles of shame and poverty; because he speaks and refuses to be silenced. He is seen as dangerous because he questions the government in court, challenging development on the traditional land of the Haudenosaunee people with injunctions and peaceful resistance. He asserts legal arguments that question the current status of the Haudenosaunee traditional land. But mostly, he has become an enemy of the state because he is inspiring and organizing Aboriginal people—a crime which has been met with the full force of the carceral state for Canada’s entire history.

In the 1880s Canada instituted a “pass system” to keep First Nations people on reserves. Under this system, an Aboriginal person could not leave the reserve unless they were issued a pass from the local Indian Agent. This system operated to disrupt religious ceremonies by preventing extended families who lived on different reserves from meeting together. The pass system was used to prevent parents from visiting children in residential schools. And, critically, it was used to undercut political organizing.

In 1892 the Criminal Code made it an offence for any person “who induces, incites or stirs up any three or more Indians, non-treaty Indians or half-breeds” to do anything “calculated to cause a breach of the peace.” It was enough for these “three or more Indians” to merely appear to be working together to be in violation and sentenced to two years. It was a system designed to shame, isolate and destroy Aboriginal culture, with the political organizer becoming a key target of police violence and imprisonment. A people cannot be assimilated if they are organizing together and resisting the colonizer. The purpose of this policy was to remake First Nations into “good Canadians,” to “make the Red Man White in all but colour.” This required all political resistance by Aboriginal people to be forcefully and violently stamped out.

An uprising in the Northwest Territories in 1885 was perhaps the most dramatic episode of this story. While the history of Louis Riel is well-known, the other trials in the summer of 1885 have fallen into historical obscurity and yet still have much to teach us about the contemporary moment. The 1885 protest and eventual uprising of Aboriginal people started with a two-year diplomatic and military campaign to establish larger reserves and abolish the Indian Act. The courts eventually sentenced 44 Aboriginal people to jail terms, mostly for “treason felony,” including Cree chiefs One Arrow, Poundmaker and Big Bear.

These political leaders were subjected to humiliating, cruel and unusual punishments intended to break them physically, spiritually and emotionally. Big Bear was forced to work as a “chore boy” for the jail steward’s wife and is reported to have been devastated by the prison term. The government wanted no martyrs. For example, when One Arrow was released, he was so ill he had to be moved out of prison on his prison bed which he died on two weeks later. The carceral system was designed to destroy Aboriginal political leadership and it did so with cruel and calculated effectiveness.

In the period between 1900-1950 a series of criminal laws were introduced specifically to criminalize political Aboriginal individuals and groups. For example, in 1927 a criminal law was introduced to prohibit the collection of funds for suits against the Canadian government without written consent of the state. Criminal laws became centrally important in Canadian Aboriginal policy in the decades after the Second World War. Vagrancy laws were applied specifically to Aboriginal people off reserves and on reserves to prohibit political organizing. Keeping Aboriginal political organizers “on the reserve” was now accomplished with bail conditions against travel and assembly, vagrancy laws and liquor laws.

Williams’ conditions of bail were not necessary to ensure he appeared at court. They were deliberately calculated to prevent him from appearing in public and speaking out about the Canadian government. Bail conditions which have the effect of silencing and isolating Aboriginal organizers are nothing more than a thinly veiled pass system. It is not a coincidence that Williams was arrested for being in downtown Toronto and speaking at the press conference. The legal system no longer explicitly prohibits the “stirring up of three or more Indians,” because it no longer needs to. Criminal laws keep Aboriginal political organizers off city streets so effectively that political prisoners have been rebranded as violent criminals.

The arrest of Skyler Williams should enrage us, but it shouldn’t surprise us. The entire weight of our colonial past comes to bear on the contemporary moment. The legal morphing of the pass system into bail conditions against appearing at political gatherings reveals the uncomfortable ways that our past isn’t dead: it isn’t even past. If we are going to speak meaningfully about reconciliation, we need to examine how the Canadian government continues to target Aboriginal organizers as political prisoners. We need to heed Chief One Arrow’s final warning and epitaph: “Do not mistreat my people.” We need to remember the ways the carceral system was designed to break Aboriginal leaders. And we need to stand beside Williams as he continues to be targeted by the Toronto police as a political prisoner.

Dr. Megan Ross is a lawyer and course instructor in the Department of Women and Gender Studies at the University of Toronto.


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