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Prisons, Refugees, Cats

1. Dorchester Penitentiary

Martha Paynter was driving through New Brunswick this weekend and texted me that she saw a billboard for the Airbnb in the old Dorchester Jail. 

Among the attractions listed on the website are that it was the site of the last double hanging in New Brunswick (more on that in a moment), with a highlight being that guests can stay in the former cells.

The Airbnb was most recently in the news when Bill Steele, the owner, was ordered to get rid of the goats wearing prison attire.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that the Save the Dorchester Jail Goats Facebook group has 1,150 members. In contrast, the John Howard Society of New Brunswick (a prisoner rights organization) has 427 members.

I realize that when you ask people to think critically about what it means when we turn death rows into “adventure” tours at the same time as deaths in custody in the current Dorchester facility pass without a public inquiry many people become angry and defensive and accuse you of being “crazy” and a killjoy.

The frequency of things like prison escape runs, or jailbreak escape rooms, (nevermind casual jokes about prison rape), indicate how deeply embedded narratives about prison are into our culture, at the same time as we are not supposed to think about those narratives and how they affect the way we see the reality of prisons and prisoners in our communities. And of course, morbid curiosity about crime is nothing new — the Newgate Calendar, which offered lurid accounts of crime and executions in the 18th and 19th centuries, was a constant bestseller (stories of drunkenness, prostitution, gambling, etc. could be enjoyed under the guise of the accounts providing a moral lesson).

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A few weeks ago I read an article where the RCMP claimed that motorcycle gangs are on the rise in Nova Scotia because of the popularity of the show Sons of Anarchy, which was cancelled three and a half years ago. I note that when the police suggest that cultural phenomena have an effect on crime that is treated like serious analysis, but if we suggest that cultural narratives about prisons might affect the way we think about crime and punishment, all of a sudden it’s just entertainment and we’re being ridiculous.

Prisons are both very present — the popularity of police dramas on TV being a prominent example — in our culture, but the reality of what happens in actual prisons is hidden. People continually consume fictional ideas of justice, but don’t have to think or know about what happens behind the walls. And of course coupled with the idea that criminals are all bad people and therefore deserve whatever happens to them, this allows us to take lightly the idea of death row prisons in ways that we wouldn’t approach other historical sites where human rights violations routinely took place.

“[Senate Human Rights] Committee chair Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard looks into a cramped cell with two bunk beds. Senator Bernard wore a wave cap at Dorchester to bring awareness of the cultural significance of wave caps. The committee heard from several witnesses that black prisoners are not allowed to wear wave caps because prison staff fear they signify gang ties.”

This publication from Public Safety Canada provides some historical information about prisons in Canada, including Dorchester Penitentiary. When Dorchester was opened in 1880, during a boom in prison construction in Canada,  corporal punishment (not abolished in Canadian prisons until 1967) was still a dominant form of discipline in the prison. This account from Kingston Penitentiary details the common punishment regimes of the time:

Antoine Beauche, committed at the age of eight, was flogged within a week of his arrival, and received 47 corporal punishments within nine months. Peter Charboneau, 10, was lashed on 57 occasions, also within nine months, for such infractions as staring, winking, and laughing. Alex Lafleur, 11, was given 12 strokes of the rawhide on Christmas Eve, 1844, for speaking French. The warden called him “a wild character.”

Young girls were not spared either. One of several sad examples was Elizabeth Breen, 12, who was flogged six times in three months. 

The mentally ill were treated with particular cruelty. One insane prisoner, James Brown, was lashed on 720 different occasions. Dr. Sampson testified that several prisoners had been “goaded into insanity” by repeated floggings.

Other punishments included “shackling, solitary confinement, the dark cell, water bath punishment, the ‘box’ (an upright, window-less “coffin”), the 35-pound yoke, and bread and water diet.” This website about the historical Dorchester prison rather breezily invites us to “view the ‘Whipping Table’ where lashes were administered for various infractions, feel the weight of an ‘Oregon Boot’ which prevented any attempt at escape while working outside, or try to imagine how constricted one would feel wearing a ‘mouth guard.’”

The Airbnb advertises that the jail is the site of the last double-hanging in New Brunswick. As George Elliott Clarke explored in Execution Poems, the last hanging in the province was in fact his cousins, George and Rufus Hamilton who were hanged back-to-back on July 27, 1949 in Fredericton.

For those interested in the death penalty in Canada, this Library and Archives of Canada document lists people sentenced to death from 1867 onwards. The database is searchable by words such as “Indian,” “Negro,” or “coloured” if one wishes.

The prison memoir Go-Boy! by Roger Caron (championed by Pierre Burton) also contains accounts of the terrible conditions inside Dorchester before the prison reform policies of the 1960s.

When you write something like this, the takeaway people often seem to come up with is “so you’re telling us we shouldn’t do this thing.” The question shouldn’t be “should people stay here,” but rather that we perhaps think about how the label of “criminal” has always facilitated incredible brutality. Perhaps we can see the connections between an era where the mentally ill were flogged mercilessly and today’s deaths in custody of prisoners with mental illnesses.

In the contemporary ongoing debate about eliminating solitary confinement, we might consider the histories of prison reform in Canada. If we are appalled now at the whipping of children incarcerated for “crimes” such as vagrancy, begging, or petty theft, perhaps we might think about 100 years from now which of our practices that are defended as common sense, necessary, and just what people deserve might horrify those who come after us.

And perhaps we can think about why, when it comes to prisoners, we can laugh about goats in prison uniforms, from a time historian W.C. Milner described as “a reproach on the sense of humanity of our people,” a period of “brutality” that “almost exceeds belief.”

2. Polls

I’m in Winnipeg visiting family, and so I’ve been reading the Manitoba news. One of the stories that’s been bothering me all day is the coverage of the Angus Reid poll about Canadians’ attitudes towards asylum seekers. 

The first point I want to raise about this is that while the attitudes are represented as belonging to the majority of Canadians, when you read the article, it turns out that:

The poll was an online survey of a representative randomized sample of 1,500 Canadian adults who are members of the Angus Reid Forum.

In other words, the people who answered this survey are people who went out of their way to join a forum. I suspect that this sample skews older, whiter, wealthier, and probably more conservative. I’m going to guess that, for example, Canadians living in poverty who don’t have easy access to the internet are less likely to be members of this forum. So what is represented as a view of “Canadians” is in fact the view of a sample of self-selected Canadians who are already invested in political issues.

I actually am not at all surprised that this would be the view of the majority of Canadians anyway (immigrants are not immune from anti-immigrant sentiment, and certainly anti-Blackness is not confined to one group), but I think it’s worth noting the way “Canadian” is presented as an umbrella, race-neutral, term — the survey doesn’t seem, for example, to ask the racial background of respondents. Is this the view of Canadians or of the majority of white Canadians? Isn’t it worthwhile knowing how race might impact the response to this question?

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But of course, the views of white Canadians are always represented as neutral. It’s always interesting to me what questions do and don’t get asked in these surveys. In the past we’ve seen surveys asking “Canadians” their views on Indigenous people or if they think people who aren’t white should be political leaders. These opinions are then presented in headlines as neutral non-ideological news items that reveal an objective fact. Rather than the headlines being “Canadians deeply racist against Indigenous people,” the opinions of the angry white majority are presented as an important contribution to public policy. As Pam Palmater pointed out:

Reconciliation also requires the end of the idea that the future existence of Indigenous peoples and their identities, languages and cultures are up for debate. We have a right to exist as Mi’kmaw, Mohawk and Cree. We have a right to govern ourselves. We have a right to our lands and resources. We have a right to enjoy our Aboriginal and treaty rights. Our ancestors paid dearly for these rights. All of these rights are protected in Indigenous, Canadian and international laws. These rights form part of Canada’s founding document — the Constitution Act, 1982. Canadians do not get celebrate their own constitutionally protected rights and freedoms without recognizing ours. Our rights are not conditional on public opinion.

It’s long past time that pollsters stop asking Canadians if they like Indigenous peoples or agree with our rights — and start asking them whether they feel like they’ve put Canada’s apology into action.

What kind of questions aren’t asked in polls? You’ll note that when the questions are about Indigenous people, or asylum seekers, or the race of political leaders, they focus on feeling and opinion. Canadians are asked how they feel about refugees and what they believe, and this perception is then presented to us. It doesn’t matter what the reality of asylum claims actually are — claims have actually dropped, and Canada takes in a relatively low number of asylum seekers — the false perceptions of “the majority” apparently trump actual facts. More accurate headlines should be “majority of Canadians deeply misinformed about the reality of asylum seekers.” And of course the same media that writes stories creating the perception of a crisis then report on poll results that are a direct consequence of that reporting as though it’s an independent result.

Respondents are not asked if they’ve talked to a refugee, if they’ve experienced any adverse effects in their own life from a refugee, if a refugee has ever threatened them, if they can name an instance where they were personally impacted by refugee policy, etc. Their perception is enough. (A better question would be asking people how many asylum seekers Canada takes in, where they think Canada stands globally in accepting asylum seekers, and reporting on those results.)

By contrast, when the question is directed at so-called marginalized groups, the questions centre on experience. We will be polled, for example, on whether we’ve experienced an incident of racism, or how many women have experienced sexual assault. What those polls never do, however, is ask us what our opinion is of the people who perpetrate those injustices. You will never see a headline, “Too many white men in the country, say majority of sufferers of racism” or “Men a dangerous population, say women” because, of course, that would never be considered to be a reasonable question, nor a reasonable conclusion.

While white opinions about racialized people are treated as neutral data, racialized people are never invited to offer our opinions of white people and then have that reported as necessary knowledge towards making public policy. When white people perceive something, whether it is reality or not, it must be put “up for debate.”

The fact that we even ask the question and not others is telling. This framing matters: what is embedded in this question is the idea that despite what the actual law is in Canada around asylum seekers, the angry white majority’s views carry particular weight. Notice that the headlines will never suggest that these numbers might say something about xenophobia or racism in Canada — instead it is presented as though the asylum seekers are actually the problem, and not the people who believe they are.

Imagine if a poll was done that revealed that two-thirds of Indigenous people believe white people need to be controlled and policed more, banned from the country, and that we are in a crisis of having white people around. Do you think those views would just be presented as fact? Or would the headlines be about radicalized Indigenous people and how do we do more to integrate them and why is the Indigenous population becoming so violent? We would be hearing about how shocking it is that such hateful views would be published and given legitimacy.

Because this is presented as just the view of “Canadians,” of course, any analysis of what this says about Canadian racism and xenophobia is conveniently absented. In the article in the Winnipeg Free Press, for example, it is reported that Manitobans lead the country in believing that we are in a “crisis” and shouldn’t take in any more asylum seekers. The following is presented in the article with no analysis:

“Canadians are skeptical whether these people are genuine refugees or not,” [Angus Reid Institute executive director Shachi] Kurl said. “We didn’t have push-back when 25,000 Syrians came — there was a feeling these people are fleeing terrible circumstances.”

I wonder what might be different about the asylum seekers crossing at the Manitoba border? Could these views at all reflect that the majority of those crossers are of African descent? But of course there are no questions that address anti-Blackness or ask respondents whether their concept of a “deserving” asylum seeker is affected by race. These numbers of course are historically consistent with policy on the prairies — in Policing Black Lives, Robyn Maynard traces how Black Americans who were refugees from lynchings, for example, settled in the prairies. This influx of Black migration was similarly treated as a “crisis” and Canada rapidly constructed policies to prevent Black entry into the country. We now recognize those policies as racist, yet the exact same dynamics in Canada today are reported with no context of how race has always informed policy around immigration in Canada, and how the white majority has always panicked, enacted violence, and created laws to prevent Canada from being “overrun.”

Kangni Kouevi’s hands remain wrapped in bandages after the 36-year-old man suffered serious frostbite walking into Manitoba from the U.S. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

My sister works as a lawyer in Winnipeg, and has volunteered representing people at the border. One of the things she observed when she went to Emerson was that people were deliberately locking their barns and refusing to open their doors to asylum seekers crossing in the middle of winter. Where is the reporting on that?

And that is to say nothing of the great hypocrisy that 44 per cent of Manitobans believe asylum seekers are coming for economic reasons and not “genuine” reasons — this from a province filled with settlers who were given farmland when they came here from Europe but now feel that anyone else seeking a better life should be met by armed border guards.

3. Fight me over cat names

I’m sorry, but this list is obviously garbage.

Like at least half the cat names on that list are objectively bad cat names. I will support Cornbread, Cheddar, Louis (depending on the cat), Scratchy, Charles (depending on the cat), and Bob (depending on the cat) as good cat names.

Clearly, if you are going to call your cat Mr. or Mrs. anything, then that is a good cat name if the name comes from a Dickens book. Charles Dickens has good cat names, fact. Look at this list and tell me they aren’t all good cat names. Yes, including Aged Parent.

If you’re going to call your cat anything with Sir or anything with Lord then it’s also clear that the naming principle that applies is naming your cat after P.G. Wodehouse characters. This is also a solid rule. 

Ballet villains also have good cat names.

(This is literally how I use my degree in English Literature. Who said the arts aren’t worthwhile?)

Anyway, I am better at cat names than that list and that’s just how it is.

Now if I worked for a publication that prioritized page clicks I would say, “What is your cat name? Post pictures of your cat below!” And then there would be like a million comments and I would get a bonus from Tim.

Passing judgement on cat names is the most controversial thing ever written on the Examiner, also fact.

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. That’s what I’ve done with my English degree too, my cats all have had good, literary names. Quite the thing!

  2. Thanks for another insightful and challenging essay. With each reading of your articles, I appreciate the effort you take to help readers see the realities behind the representations (or absence of representations) in the media and polling, etc. I’m sure many others feel (if not express) the debt they owe to your work.

  3. I always figured if I got a cat I’d name it Sophocles…i think Chester Meredith is now in the top spot.