1. A letter to the candidates from prison

This letter comes to you from behind the walls of one of this province’s so-called correctional facilities.

Those of us serving sentences do not always feel we have a voice. We are able to vote in prison, but most do not feel their vote matters. Those of us accused or convicted of committing criminal acts come from the poorest backgrounds and even before we got here, most people did not think their vote mattered, or that we had a voice.

Most people on the outside may not feel we deserve a voice in the political process or that our rights should be protected. It is understandable why candidates do not campaign to us, as most often we are the subjects of the problems people want politicians to fix. It is my belief, however, that without the voices of prisoners speaking about what our conditions are and how to improve them, there cannot be effective solutions to crime or violence or the cycle of incarceration.

Most crime in today’s world stems from life in a socioeconomic order designed more than a century ago. Working alone, from within a steel-enclosed place of incarceration, there is little someone like me can do to educate Nova Scotians as to the day-to-day realities of the province’s prisons.

We work for virtually nothing in here. Almost everything is given to you, and after a period of time, you begin to rely on these things. Some get out, and when things get tough and the road gets hard, subconsciously and unknowingly, you end up back inside because it is an escape from all the things we stress and worry about in society.

What we experience in prison isn’t simply a matter of overcrowding and other conditions. Often, we are the victims of institutional racial and class discrimination that is present in the justice system.

Because we as citizens have allegedly committed a crime does not mean we should lose the right to support our families. Because of this, more children are being placed in foster homes and more people are losing their homes and ending up on the street. The effects of prison should be considered unconstitutional for the amount of damage it does to those close to the one incarcerated.

If prisons are supposed to be rehabilitative, why are people spending their whole lives behind bars? Why is the amount of people reoffending so high? I believe it is because people are not receiving the tools needed while incarcerated.

In this current structure there is no process for accountability or change. It’s just you come in, do your time, and go home.

Also while incarcerated, jobs should be provided to support not only oneself, but also family on the outside. Where I am currently incarcerated, if I were to use all the things available to me, I would need quite the amount of income. Between hygiene, food, paying for the TVs we use in here and phones — and because I am involuntarily transferred phone calls cost $7 a call — that’s about $180 I am expecting from my loved ones back home.

If it’s me who is alleged to have committed a crime, why am I not the one paying my own way? This in itself could be rehabilitating, because I’d be working and learning to manage my own money.

For the jobs that are offered here, the pay is related to slavery. For example, if I were to work as a cleaner here, I’d clean two hours a day and be paid $10 every two weeks, and if I don’t spend it right away it is taken away from me.

It is alleged there is an inmate trust fund but the inmates have no say in what the funds are used for.

Because we have nothing in here, we are punished by solitary confinement or being further deprived of movement and society. These punishments do not help us understand how to change our behaviour, they submit us to conditions that are like torture, and then return us to society worse off than we were.

People of different racial backgrounds are so unacknowledged, the only way you could tell we’re even here is if you were to see us. The commissary consists of hair care only for people of European descent and there are no counsellors or liaisons for the needs or special services for people of colour.

Most of our families are poor and they cannot afford the cost of phones. If families are important to reintegrating us into society, why is the province making money and exploiting our need to contact our loved ones? We receive one five-minute phone call a week, but if prison was meant to truly rehabilitate us and return us to society, we should be encouraged to parent our children and take responsible roles in our families. If this is the goal then why is the focus on making as much money as possible from us?

We have been committed to provincial correctional facilities for the purpose of correcting what has been deemed of errors of behaviour, errors which have classified us as socially unacceptable until we are reprogrammed with new values and a more thorough understanding of our roles and responsibilities as members of outside society. The regime we are currently submitted to under the title of rehabilitation should be likened to pouring water on a drowning man, inasmuch as these facilities only create more violence and hostilities. This system is in every way counterproductive.

It is the people in power who hold power to decide our lives and freedoms, who determine what happens to our bodies and our minds. We are not asking to sit here without responsibilities for our actions or for what we do now in here, we are asking for jobs, education, and programs that truly rehabilitate us and help us return to society.

2. The African Nova Scotian Coalition Candidate Survey


The responses are in for the African Nova Scotian Coalition Candidate Survey.

The survey was sent out to all candidates running in the provincial election.In the end, the Liberals, PCs, and NDP submitted party responses, while the Greens and Atlantica Party did not submit any responses. The only individual candidates to submit responses were Irvine Carvery and Michael McLeod.

The survey results can be viewed on Facebook here.

Robert Devet has an excellent summary and analysis of some of the responses here.

Some generalities about the responses:

As Mark Cunningham observed, the responses from the PC party can be characterized as follows:

Survey: Do Black lives matter?
PC Party: All lives matter.

This observation is backed up by repeated answers to questions that ask about things like poorer health outcomes for African Nova Scotians or an achievement gap in education — questions that specifically identify race-based inequalities — with statements like:

A Progressive Conservative government wants all children in our education system to have the tools and support they need to achieve their full potential. That means working with teachers and parents to make sure classrooms are welcoming and productive places to learn for all children.


A Progressive Conservative government would support health research that results in improved health outcomes for Nova Scotians.

This colourblind approach to addressing discrimination ignores the realities of how racism impacts the lives of African Nova Scotians. Refusing to acknowledge how race affects our daily lives doesn’t result in Black people being treated the same as white people, it means that we continue to not recognize or address the effects of racism.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Party responses mostly centre the Liberal Party. It’s sort of like the equivalent of those meetings where Black people try to share and talk about experiences of racism, and then a white person gets up and starts talking about themselves and how they shouldn’t have to feel guilty, and how they have Black friends, and how they sponsor a child in Africa.

The NDP’s is the only response to use the term “systemic racism.” The PC party manages to not use “racism” once in their responses, while the Liberals also avoid naming racism and use “systemic” only in a description of historical abuses in the Home for Coloured Children.

As Robert Devet observes:

…[T]o this reporter it appears that the recognition that racism is both a historic and ongoing cause underlying many of the issues is often lacking.

Take the questions about environmental racism. Both the Liberal and PC responses talk about that issue in the past tense, as if it is something that happened a long time ago.

“This power imbalance was pervasive throughout the entire decision-making chain,” writes the PC Party. “In the past many developments that produced and released noxious or hazardous waste into their surrounding environment were in and around some African Nova Scotians and Mik’maq communities,” write the Liberals. (emphasis added).

Yet you only have to look at the uphill battle for remediation of a potentially toxic dump in the Shelburne Black community, or the Mi’kmaw resistance to Alton Gas, to recognize that environmental racism is alive and well today.

Map of environmental disasters located near to Indigenous and Black communities from the ENRICH project.

Lest I be suspected of uncritically boostering the NDP, Devet’s observation about the responses to carding is also telling:

Meanwhile the NDP endorses the current initiative by the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission to hire an independent expert to research the incidence of street checks by Halifax police.

The NDP does so even though many African Nova Scotians have called for an immediate moratorium on this reprehensible practice. This approach ignores that carding is to a large extent a provincial issue and responsibility, something that is well understood in Ontario for instance. It’s not clear why a progressive provincial government wouldn’t assert its role in ending the practice.

Graphic from cbc.ca.

While the NDP responses are generally the most eloquent in recognizing the effects of generational racism and describing its impacts, they often lack solutions, identifying issues of inequality without committing to concrete initiatives or setting targets. For example, in answer to a question about over incarceration of African Nova Scotians and inequality in the justice system, they write:

We’d like to work in partnership with the African Nova Scotian community to determine next steps at the provincial level to address underrepresentation in roles throughout the justice system, and to establish a path forward for addressing racism in our justice system. Issues to be addressed include the prohibitive cost of maintaining family and community ties while incarcerated, which differentially impacts low-income and African Nova Scotia inmates; the impact of poverty on the remand population; the challenges faced by former inmates when they are released, as a criminal record is often a barrier to securing employment; and insufficient reintegration services.

Image from http://www.oci-bec.gc.ca

How about committing to reducing prison populations by target percentages in five, or 10, or 25 years? Or a moratorium on prison expansion, or a commitment to removing criminal record checks from jobs where it is not relevant. What about ending minimum sentencing (weapons minimums have already been recognized as discriminatory and unconstitutional in Ontario) or ending solitary confinement in provincial jails? Without actual firm commitments to decarcerating, and measurable ways of reducing our dependence on incarceration, it’s hard to know what African Nova Scotians can expect.

Other responses of particular interest to me were as follows:


This was the first response I searched for. An endorsement of the reparations movement by any party would immediately have placed Nova Scotia in a leading global role in redressing historical and ongoing injustices against African people.

Of course, this was too much to hope. Both the Liberals and the NDP transposed the concept of “reparations” — defined by Ta-Nehisi Coates as “the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences” — into “restorative justice,” while the PCs stated only that they would be “open” to discussion (a statement with no meaning given the absence of any actual commitment of funds, suggestions for formulas for calculating reparations, a framework for thinking about reparations such as free post-secondary education or housing, etc.).

The slippage from reparations, a political movement that demands oppressors pay up, to restorative justice is telling in the ways that it frames Black people as responsible for offering healing, listening, forgiveness, and absolution, while de-centring white accountability for historical injustice. I’ve written before about the mythologies of the Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa, and its dubious success in actually addressing historical wrongs — a framework being imposed as the solution to historical injustice in communities without any evidence to support that it actually worked.

In fact, in South Africa, the perpetrators didn’t even bother to show up as Black people bared their pain, and continue to collect pensions from the state, own mines, banks, and more land than ever — and of course it’s only white perpetrators of decades/centuries of horrific abuse and repression who must be forgiven and restored, while Black shoplifters should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. One doubts that white American victims of terror attacks would ever be expected to “enter into restorative dialogue” with ISIS, unlike Black victims of enslavement, genocide, and systemic state violence.

Imagining processes where Black people absolve white people and where “healing” is prioritized for white people is easier than imagining that white people might actually give up ill-gotten wealth, or that we actually fundamentally change privilege, wealth, and economies in recognition of the profit exploited from African labour and resources, and the ongoing deficits in the Black community compounded over generations.

Image from https://cdn.opendemocracy.net

Restorative processes should not take place until after a full accounting, in all senses of the words. “Just like “being open to discussion” or “starting a conversation,” these imagined solutions picture “dialogue” as the primary solution to systemic injustices, perhaps accompanied by relatively small settlements that don’t upset the economic order or deprive white people of their place atop society. Sitting in a circle won’t restore to us the generations of poverty that leave us with far less individual and collective wealth.

Cultural Assessments

The Liberal Party response to the question, “If elected, would you support the systematic use of African Nova Scotian Cultural Impact Assessments?” is perhaps the most shocking answer of the survey:

We believe it should be up to the discretion of Judges in individual cases to decide when such assessments would be of value. We strongly believe that it is by increasing the diversity of our judiciary that we can make the most impact on ensuring fair and well reasoned legal proceedings take place.

Leaving cultural assessments up to individuals means that, in other words, they don’t support cultural assessments.

Image from spacing.ca

Leaving it up to chance and hoping that defence lawyers are aware these assessments exist and are able to access them, means that Black people will continue to be disadvantaged in the system, Currently, without a mandate to make assessments mandatory, there are also a limited number of professionals qualified to perform these reports, and no motivation for the government to invest in increasing these numbers.

Cultural assessments are a significant and necessary tool in changing how Black defendants are seen in the courtroom. Studies have shown bias exists in the judicial system at every level, and this racial bias — where Black defendants are seen as dangerous, unrepentant, hardened criminals, uncaring, and as thugs — impacts how cases are prosecuted, how juries make decisions, and how sentences are applied.

Police profiling results in more Black people being charged, and Black people also suffer from being given harsher charges, and having charges piled on. Defence lawyers also reflect this societal image of the Black person as criminal and belonging in jail, and Black defendants are more likely to be encouraged to plead guilty, and often report feeling their lawyers are cavalier about them going to prison.

Assessments confront this systemic bias in the justice system, and recognize that Black people’s actions or behaviour are often viewed through a lens of people with no context for understanding Black people outside of the assumption that Black people are simply more pathologically violent or criminal. They allow judges to get a fuller picture of the defendant, and to confront biases about Black criminality. In essence, they do for Black people what white people already get — the ability to be seen as a complex human being.

John Tattrie’s series on the groundbreaking use in a youth sentencing of a cultural assessment by Robert Wright can be read here.

The sentencing decision in Kale Gabriel’s case by Justice Campbell can be read here. It shows the way cultural assessments can be used to provide a lens through which to recognize the impacts of racism and historical injustice.

The assumption about cultural assessments, like Gladue reports for Indigenous defendants, is that Black people “get to commit crimes because they’re Black” and “get off easier.” Of course, this ignores the fact that there is already bias in sentencing that means some people get off easier. These are the people who can afford to pay for the best lawyers, or the bias that favours white defendants who look like they could be the judge or jury or prosecutor’s child, and so are seen as relatable, while Black defendants are seen as threatening and remorseless. This is the bias that sees white defendants as “a good kid from a good home who made a mistake,” while Black people convicted of the exact same crimes are seen as career criminals who are beyond saving.

Image from goodmenproject.com

This same bias is seen in the classification system used by CSC, which assesses people who grew up in middle class homes, had access to money or jobs, and who finished school as less of a “risk” than people who grew up in foster care, dropped out of school because of racism, and experience employment discrimination — punishing people with higher security placements for being born with less privilege. The same bias that subjects Black prisoners to more institutional charges and time in solitary confinement, leading to problems getting bail or parole.

We’re OK with those biases, which are seen as normal, but any attempt to address the disproportionate conviction and sentencing of Black people is seen as an “unfair advantage.”

The Liberal Party response ignores this history and reality of systemic racism, and rather places the burden on individual judges to shift centuries of racism.

Of course, if having Black people in influential positions was the solution to racism, racism would have ended in 2008 when Barack Obama was elected president. Strangely, police shootings or a racially administered death penalty did not end under Obama.

Image from everyday feminism.com

There is also the problem of assuming that all Black judges share the same viewpoint or political stances, and that every Black person understands or is invested in eliminating racism. Clarence Thomas immediately springs to mind as the obvious counter example. The idea that there is a monolithic “Black opinion” that is shared by every single Black person reduces Black people to tokens. A Black judge who, say, began their career in the military or police before serving as a Crown has little in common with a Rocky Jones.

And then there are the actual mechanics. So do all Black defendants get to appear in front of a Black judge? Otherwise, what about all the conservative white judges who will still be on the bench?

The assumption here seems to be that Black judges will educate their colleagues and change the culture of the judiciary. In other words, the newest and most vulnerable members will be expected to educate senior judges with 30 years on the bench, and shoulder the burden as well as the danger to their careers and reputations that come as a result of challenging racism and racial bias.

Did the Liberals forget what happened to Judge Corinne Sparks when she recognized the reality of police racial profiling? She was accused of bias and dragged through the Supreme Court. The responsibility should not be on the most marginalized judges to risk their careers, it should be on the people with the most social power and privilege.

Image from nsadvocate.org

Expecting Black people to do all the work of ending racism is a cop out, and continues the notion still active from slavery that white society is entitled to the free labour of Black people. Will Black judges be offered double the salary of their colleagues for being expected to end racism as well as hearing cases?

Apparently dealing with racism is optional for white people, just as cultural assessments will be under the Liberal Party.


The survey sets a precedent for demanding platforms that specifically address the histories and realities of African Nova Scotian communities. My critical response to some answers should not be taken as a discouragement to the parties for engaging in such surveys — rather, it creates the possibility for substantial analysis of how our political parties understand race and for discussing concrete policies to address racism.

Discussions of racism in the public sphere tend to be reactive — we discuss race largely in the context of responding to someone being accused of doing something racist, and then discussion focuses on whether the racist thing was actually racist, or are Black people just taking offence. This limited approach to discussing race issues contributes to the fear of speaking about race, and the widely held conviction that talking about racism makes you racist.

Image from cbc.ca

It is actually unusual in Nova Scotia for a public discussion to start on the terms of Black people, and with the simple recognition that we are not interested in debating whether racism exists or whether Black people have the right to identify racism. We are telling you how it exists and demanding of you that you respond.

The simple act of Black people stating the realities of an education system that does not serve Black children, or speaking uncompromisingly about mass incarceration for Black people, and having people in power agree and affirm those positions is liberating, in the sense that we move from arguing that racism exists to speaking firmly about our expectation for solutions.

These responses also form a record where African Nova Scotians can now refer to the Party’s stated positions and hold them accountable, or have clear evidence of where they fall short, and be able to use that to focus advocacy and activism efforts.

It’s notable that one origin of this survey came from Jalana Lewis’ experience answering surveys as Lindell Smith’s campaign manager, where she realized how many organizations and communities use surveys to get responses. Something regularly done by other groups was not done by Nova Scotians denied access to these spaces of power for generations and having to figure out on their own how things are done. This survey also in that sense exists as a recognition of the significance of Black women’s labour and organizing powers. So often unseen, Black women’s labour has always been the foundation of movements for our rights. This survey also stands as a record of Black women’s powers.

3. A note on majorities

The survey showing that 58 per cent of people in the Mississippi of the North The Deep South of Canada Halifax support keeping Cornwallis statues and names around prompted media commentary on the “silent majority” and whether therefore Cornwallis is good and Indigenous people are bullying everyone which is as bad as scalping children.

Image from cbc.ca

As I read this survey while being followed around the store police checked requesting the Black hair products locked behind the counter serving my school suspension within my solitary confinement cell I confess I was shocked! at the previously unsuspected revelation that Halifax is pretty racist.

First of all, yeah, when I listened to the Rick Howe show or whatever, my first impression is how silent racist white people are. Nary a peep do you hear from people who hate Indigenous people. Why, the CBC comments sections that had to shut down comments on stories about Indigenous peoples are but a whisper. Confederate flag defenders are renowned for their delicacy of speech, and one has to strain to hear the barest squeak of how BLM are all terrorists.

Secondly, that’ll be the day when anyone takes a survey of Black or Indigenous people about white people and then seriously debates whether white people should be seen as less than fully human as a result. Oh guess what, white people! Black people took a vote and we decided that kissing your pets on the mouth is illegal now.

Image from huffpost.com

Anyway, I’m guessing that most people  today would agree 1962 in Halifax was a pretty fucking racist time, what with the destruction of Africville and the segregation and everything.

Well, not according to the majority of white people in this video.

Fuck. Here I was enjoying my rights without the approval of white people in 1962. I guess they must be right and segregation is the best thing for the Negro. Thank God we have white people making decisions about what society should look like and what’s best for everyone else! Why, how content I am with my possessions in this city dump truck and my bulldozed church, thanks white people!

Image from the Nova Scotia Archives.

The majority is worth listening to, after all.

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El Jones is a poet, journalist, professor, community advocate, and activist. Her work focuses on social justice issues such as feminism, prison abolition, anti-racism, and decolonization.

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  1. Thanks for your column, El Jones. The Black/white – White/black examples you put forth explores two sides of hatred…

  2. I think CBC website shut down comments from anyone with no true ID. Good for them! Got a thought? Own it

  3. The emblem of suffering and shame should be shuffled off to the museum since it’s historically revelant to what is Halifax. Presently, Cornwallis’s statue is an infected and festering symbol of injustice and hate. Move it aside but give it some air. Right?