by Martha Paynter, El Jones, and Emma Halpern
We sat down with Angela Davis for one hour over lunch when she was in town this week to receive an honourary Doctor of Laws from Dalhousie University and deliver the inaugural lecture in the Viola Desmond series. She asked us about prison abolition, sexual violence, racism, and the state of feminist activism in Nova Scotia. Reflecting on her generous curiosity about these issues here, we wanted to share the highlights of our conversation. We left out too much and we forgot a great deal before we wrote this down and for that we are sorry.
Davis had never been to Nova Scotia before. She knew about Desmond, and the destruction of Africville. El Jones gestured to Citadel hill behind us and said it was fortified by the Maroons from Jamaica, before they migrated to Sierra Leone, although there was no monument to attest to that. We told her about the activism to remove the Cornwallis statue, like the movement to remove Confederate memorials in the United States.
She knew prisoners here had joined the U.S. national prisoner strike. We told her it had manifested from “renovations” to the prison, which guards felt endangered them, resulting in staff shortages, and the men in segregation for weeks. Jones gave Davis a long hand-written letter from a prisoner; in it he called her Aunt Angela. In her speech at the Rebecca Cohn Theatre later that evening, Davis honoured the local prison strike leader Randy Riley and his family.
Davis wanted to know more about the prisons. We told her there is only one provincial jail where women are imprisoned, co-located with a large men’s unit: Burnside. We said next time we will take you there to the parking lot so you can see it, it is tucked away. Next time she can come to the monthly gathering Elizabeth Fry hosts at the Nova Institution for Women in Truro. We told her although E Fry has legislated access to monitor the conditions of confinement for incarcerated women, there is no similar service for the men.
We told Davis that between two-thirds to three-quarters of the prisoners in this province are on remand, untried and unconvicted. That no contact visits are allowed, no hugs. We told her the province is planning to build another jail for women in Sydney, under the myth that it will be “better” to imprison women closer to home. Davis asked, “And how is that being protested?”
We need to protest the expansion of prisons.
We told her about the first ever Canadian Prison Law conference held here last month, organized by Adelina Iftene at the Schulich School of Law. How the conference was seared with gender tension: an old, masculine guard brought together by and with a new, female-dominated energy and collaborative approach to prison advocacy.
We told her how here in Nova Scotia no Legal Aid budget for prison lawsuits exists. How habeus corpus files are all handled pro-bono, and often by young feminist lawyers like Hanna Garson and Nijhawan McMillan Petrunia Barristers.
We told her remanded women are separated from their children and the children risk ending up in state care. That even though only two per cent of people in Nova Scotia identify as Indigenous, one-quarter of children in foster care are Indigenous. That children in group homes are in danger of experiencing trafficking and criminalization.
We told her the story of Abdoul Abdi: orphaned, separated from his sister, shifted through 31 foster homes in childhood, and how his aunt’s attempt to gain his citizenship was rejected because she was not his legal guardian. That he was to be deported to Somalia. That activists of colour and lawyer Benjamin Perryman worked tirelessly for a stay of that deportation. We told her about Abdoul’s brave sister confronting Justin Trudeau and asking if he would deport his own children. For Abdoul was Canada’s child.
We told her of the women like Fliss Cramman and Debra Spencer who had the same story of abandonment and punishment by the very government in whose care they were placed as children. But who are now, through tireless advocacy, citizens.
We told her the racism evident in our rates of incarceration rivals the United States. In Canada, where two per cent of the population is Black, eight per cent of federal prisoners are black. Fully 38 per cent of federally-incarcerated women are Indigenous.
We told her about Robert Wright and Lana McLean’s leadership as clinical social workers to extend the concept of the Gladue Report to cultural assessment for African Nova Scotians facing criminalization. These assessments build understanding of the complex, intersecting factors in the lives of African Nova Scotians that should inform charges and sentencing.
We told her about the Wellness Court, Wagmatcook, the Mental Health and Domestic Violence courts. We talked about the expansion of restorative justice. The piecemeal progress being made towards alternatives to incarceration.
She asked about sexual violence. We told her a wave of #MeToo started early here, with local Lucy Decoutere’s testimony in the Ghomeshi trial and a not guilty verdict. We told her about Reteah Parsons, Kristin Johnson, Catherine Campbell. About the taxi cab rape acquittal and Judge Lenehan’s conclusion, “clearly a drunk can consent.”
She asked, “How are you connecting it all, sexual violence and prison abolition?”
We need to connect it all to expose what she calls the synergies between sexual violence and state violence through incarceration.
She asked about feminist activism. We told her about the front-line work of organizations like Stepping Stone, providing support to sex-workers, without judgment. We told her about the Mi’kmaq grandmother water protectors stopping Alton Gas on the Shubenacadie River.
We told her we have some deep schisms. That support for decriminalization of sex work divides feminists. That transphobia weakens the movement. She was disappointed. In her speech that evening about Belonging, she demanded inclusion of transgender sisters and those who identify outside of the gender binary. She said resistance that is not inclusive and transformative replicates ideologies of inequity.
We need inclusive, intersectional feminism.
After her talk that evening, one wise audience member asked Davis what self care looks like to her, and she said it is about the collective, the community, being together.
We were together with Angela Davis. She cared about the work and the movements here. She did not offer advice, except what was revealed in her questions. She signed our books, In Solidarity.