I’m back at Saturday Morning File after “taking last Saturday off…”



1. On Prison and Teeth

I have conversations every day with prisoners. And even after all this time, I constantly find myself asking questions about something that is common, daily, experience inside prison, but something I’ve never thought about or understood before. One of the reasons prison has such a profound effect on relationships between prisoners and their loved ones, and between prisoners and the rest of society, is this incomprehensibility of the prison experience. Those of us outside can simply not imagine the details of what it actually feels like to be incarcerated. We don’t think about how the most basic tasks in a day are changed in the prison experience. Because we do not even know to ask, the more time people spend incarcerated, the more alienated they become.

The very words used inside prison form a vocabulary that is strange to people outside — you often have to ask for entire words and concepts and acronyms to be translated to understand what you are being told. When we talk about prisons we tend to talk about the “big” issues — solitary confinement, assault, wrongful conviction, etc. But incarceration and the loss of freedom is also made up of the many mundane details of life when you are under the control of a prison. Talking about these realities is also important in understanding what prison actually does to people and what life is like inside.

I can’t remember how a conversation about dental care in prison originally came up. I think the person I was talking to mentioned as an aside that someone was missing his front teeth. And without really thinking about it, I commented that it seemed like lots of people who were inside or who had done time were missing teeth. What’s that about? I asked. And as I was told about dental care in prison, so much about daily deprivation became clear.

Image of prison toothbrush from pinterest.
Image of prison toothbrush from pinterest.

The dentist is supposed to come every three weeks in Burnside, and on a similar schedule in Federal prisons. In reality, as I was told, the dentist comes very rarely. Because of this, waiting lists are very long, so a prisoner can wait six months to be seen about a problem. When prisoners do get in to see the dentist, the prison is reluctant to pay for dental care such as root canals, surgery, or other procedures. By the time they are seen by the dentist, prisoners are usually in extreme pain, which they just want to stop.

So most dental care in prison is just having your teeth pulled. The prisoner I was talking to told me he lost half a front tooth in a fight, and the dentist was just going to pull the tooth. He was lucky, and pushed to have a reconstruction, and the dentist was able to build him a new tooth in the prison. But this is unusual.

Having “bad teeth” and missing teeth is a huge class marker in society. Along with the stigma of criminal records, missing teeth leaves a visible sign of prison on the body. Having good teeth shows that a person has the money to get dental care. It shows that they have had a job with dental coverage. It shows they have avoided “rough living” and all the signs of being a social “underclass” — poverty, homelessness, addiction, violence, poor nutrition.

Missing teeth shows right on the face of the prisoner, something that can’t be hidden. It affects the ability and confidence to talk, to smile. It makes people self-conscious about how they look, about whether they can go out on a date or find a relationship. What happens if you go for a job, and your front teeth are missing? What kind of judgements do people make about you? In a culture where big white smiles are now considered normal and beautiful, if you can’t pay for that, and if you lived a life where you couldn’t get dental care, it shows right on your face, in your mouth, that you are not the “right” kind of person. Even after you leave prison, having bad or missing teeth shows where you’ve been.

The social stigma around toothlessness is real. Image from pinterest.
The social stigma around toothlessness is real. Image from pinterest.

Many people who come into prison have lived difficult lives. People have lived on the streets where they couldn’t care for their teeth. Substance use also affects teeth. People who suffer violence, who have been punched in the face, thrown to the ground, abused and beaten, are often missing teeth as a result.

The prison provides some basic hygiene products, but people have told me the tubes of toothpaste say “not for internal consumption.” Someone else described it as “basically just clear fluid.” Apparently because toothpaste can be theoretically used for various contraband activities, the prison toothpaste is specially formulated, but it doesn’t really help to brush teeth. Inmates who get money from the outside or who work or who have resources can buy toothpaste from the canteen, but if you came to prison from the streets, or from an impoverished reserve, you won’t have money for that.


People in prison also sometimes just “let go.” People in prison will sometimes neglect hygiene because they are depressed. Some people never had the opportunity on the outside to be clean or to have water or a place to brush their teeth. Some people deliberately smell so that people leave them alone: it’s a protection mechanism.

Prison food is not healthy. Add to that the junk food and pop that people buy in canteen — largely because the food offered is not filling, and dinner is served before 5pm leaving people hungry at night — and prisoners are constantly eating sugary food that is bad for their teeth. Many people, because they are scared of being out on the range, or because they are depressed, or because there is nothing else to do, just buy canteen, lock up, and watch TV. Drug use inside, or the methadone, or medications that dry out the mouth, all make dental care even more of a challenge.

image from
image from

If you do get dentures, caring for them is challenging in prison. Cleaning dentures is difficult without much access to good products. Same with denture glue. Having dentures also marks an inmate — he might be seen as a “weak” inmate and targeted as a result. One story I was told was that a guy went to blow a candle out on a birthday cake and his teeth shot out and landed on the cake. What if that happened in front of your child, or family.

People who get out of prison want nothing more than to leave it behind. In reality, people return to the same situations they were in with no new resources and the added problem of a record, of trauma, of lost relationships. When your body shows the stigma of prison right where everyone can see it, it makes it even harder to hide where you were and what happened.

When people say they don’t want their tax money going to prisoners, it’s easy to think that it makes sense to not have dentists available to prisoners (why should they get dental?). It’s easy to think it’s just economic to pull teeth rather than go through the trouble of transporting prisoners (with guards) to get procedures done. What’s a couple of lost teeth? But it’s one more thing that shows prisoners their lack of worth in society, and that makes it harder to come back to society, to change their lives, and to be treated as normal people.

2. Mr. Trudeau goes to Washington

Hey Americans! Come to Cape Breton and get Hep C! The C is for “Canada!”

Apparently, “A second tattoo artist in Cape Breton has been found to be sterilizing his tools improperly, leaving open the possibility of blood-borne illnesses transferring from one client to another, according to the Nova Scotia Health Authority.”

Okay, but can we talk for a minute about the picture of the tattoo accompanying the article?

image from
image from

Who is this delightful person getting a permanent tattoo of pumpkins with candy canes sticking out of their heads? I hope that’s a ghost and not a KKK member in the background there. That wouldn’t be good for our “people fleeing Trump” image. Is this Tim Burton getting tattooed?


Anyway, Justin Trudeau is in Washington DC, leading to serious discussions in the media about our water policy and pipelines and  HOCKEY HOCKEY HOCKEY HOCKEY HOCKEY HOCKEY DURRRRRRR CANADIANS LOVE HOCKEY EH. Literally apparently Trudeau and Obama met and the conversation was like:

Obama: Hockey poutine Tim Hortons curling eh?

Trudeau: Beaver beaver snow mountie white people.

“There are some things we will probably never agree on. Who’s beer is better, who is better at hockey,” Obama joked. “Where is the Stanley Cup right now? Is it in my hometown with the Chicago Blackhawks?”

Not to be outdone, Trudeau responded by thanking Obama for highlighting the need for strong Canadian “exports.”

“Speaking of exports we know for certainty there is a high demand for Canadian goods down here. A few that come to mind that President Obama rightly recognized as being extraordinary contributors to the American success story is Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Patrick Sharp of the Chicago Blackhawks,” Trudeau said to a round of cheers from the Canadian delegation and Canadian ex-pats in attendance.

Oh wow, that’s two references to the Blackhawks in like 10 seconds. (Zero discussions referencing actual Indigenous people.)

image - of course - from
image – of course – from

Silly Trudeau, everyone knows weed and Bonhomme pornography are our best exports!

Trudeau’s visit also prompted vaguely racist conversations among Canadians about which couple is hotter. ARE WHITE PEOPLE MORE ATTRACTIVE AND DESIRABLE THAN BLACK PEOPLE NO THERE IS ACTUALLY NO HISTORICAL BAGGAGE IN HAVING THIS CONVERSATION. Oh, sorry for the all the WASHINGTON CAPITAL letters there (ahahaha, I can make that pun because I’m Canadian and I only speak hockey.)


Ugh, Lord, take me now.

Obama also joked about Americans moving to Cape Breton to escape Trump, which is funny because while, say, actual Canadian citizens with Jamaican passports can’t even get back into their own country, Americans can brag about how they can move anywhere in the world unimpeded!

It’s also hilarious because when Black Americans try to claim asylum in Canada because of the constant police brutality experienced by Black people in the USA, they get denied, but then white Americans be like “I’m moving to Canada because of politics.” Now they can read Underground to Canada and totally identify.

Sophie Gregoire Trudeau wore a zzzzzzzzzzzzzz oh my god it’s just after International Women’s Day can we not. At least she managed not to break out into “Smile Back at Me” at the sight of the Obamas.

YouTube video

3. Blame it on the seals

The low number of white hake and Atlantic cod has led to the recommendation they be given endangered status by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.”

Oh no! What could have caused this? Climate change? Overfishing? Pollution in the ocean?

“Nearly half a million grey seals in the Northumberland Strait that feed on the fish are the main cause behind the recommendation, according to the committee.”

God, those seals. When they’re not eating all the fish out of the ocean, they’re making ocean water levels rise by being all fat in the water. And all those land seals must be responsible for clear cutting the trees (biting through the trunks) in St. Margaret’s Bay.


I also heard it was seals crawling into Cape Breton’s tattoo parlours and licking all the needles.

4. Uphill both ways

Maybe this is my equivalent of a cranky letter of the day moment, but my reaction to this story about teachers adding stationary bikes to elementary classrooms to help kids focus and burn off energy is OR THEY COULD JUST GO OUTSIDE AND RUN AROUND.

This just seems like one of those bureaucratic things where schools have cut back on recess time. Fears of lawsuits have reduced childrens’ access to playgrounds, and fears of predators have limited playing outside unsupervised. And then there’s a bunch of studies showing kids aren’t getting exercise and their learning is impacted, so there’s a push to put bikes into classrooms. So now we’ll go through a whole thing of getting stationary bikes instead of just, maybe, letting the kids go play in the outdoors instead.

Goddammit, in my day we pogo-sticked outside all day every day sun or snow and we didn’t need these newfangled stationary bikes.


5. Tim gets personal

So before I was abducted to the cat planet last week, Tim sends me an email “without comment.”

Should women be entitled to time off work during their periods? Vote in our poll.

— Global Okanagan (@GlobalOkanagan) March 4, 2016

No, haters, he didn’t send me this because I’m a woman working for the Examiner and he wanted to give me time off, or because he thought I was on my period or something, or he thought I was writing too much politics and lady writers should write more about our va jay jays. Oh, gee, Tim, how did you know that’s my brand of tampons?

It’s because I complained about Global doing polls about news issues the week before. YES TIM I AM ALWAYS ON MY PERIOD AND SHOULD GET EVERY SATURDAY OFF WITH PAY.

Seriously, though, where’s the poll like “should men get to come in late to work if they’re tired from a long-lasting erection caused by Viagra?” or whatever. Like you know what this world needs? More men voting on things that affect women’s bodies. I have a poll: should Global stop doing ridiculous polls and actually report the news?

Now there’s probably some Examiner reader out there all leaving a comment like “goddamn it, are you going to write about the Kardashians next? If I wanted to read about periods I’d pick up an issue of YM or something and read those embarrassing stories about wearing white pants. When’s the Herald coming back?”

image from
image from

Right now Tim is like:



1. Basically playing cards with colonizers

On International Women’s Day, the Bank of Canada asked for nominations for women to be on a bank note.

First of all, can we get the queen OFF the money? How about for the International Day against Racial Discrimination? Like, we’re going to talk about which Indigenous women should be on the money while sticking her next to the giant face of the colonizer? And this is progressive?

YouTube video

But moving on, in debating which women to put on the money, the question of historical judgement inevitably comes up. The white men already on the money are long installed there, but putting women on raises those questions of how we understand the legacies of women’s history in Canada. Many people are going to advocate for the Famous Five to be on the money, but then we will be ignoring or dismissing their histories of racist and eugenicist beliefs. A public nomination process is also more likely to yield established historical figures and ones who are less challenging to our beloved myths or ourselves, and less likely to result in an Indigenous or Woman of Colour being represented. But it’s also true that none of the white men on our money are given a second thought about what they represent.

In light of this discussion of how to represent and honour our history, it’s timely that Black Nova Scotian News reminds us of the legacy of Sir Wilfrid Laurier:


“African-American blacks were, unofficially, no longer encouraged to immigrate to Canada in large numbers during the early 1900s. This policy was never officially put into the Immigration Act likely for two reasons:

1) to avoid diplomatic problems with the U.S. government, and

2) to also avoid angering pockets of black voters in Nova Scotia and Ontario. However, immigration agents made it clear to black people south of the border that Canada would no longer support them.

Only seven black people came to Canada from the United States between 1909 and 1910. That said, though, about 200 black immigrants from the Caribbean arrived in Canada between 1912 and 1915. Most of these blacks were hired by Nova Scotia mining firms to work in Cape Breton.”

This headline is typical of the way these debates on recognizing Canada’s racist history always go:

“Sure, John A. Macdonald was a racist, colonizer and misogynist — but so were most Canadians back then.”

Oh, okay. NBD then! Just as long as all white people were super racist that makes it ok. It worked out, though, because people who aren’t white were also actually less human back then so it didn’t matter!

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. Do we have to have only one person per bill? Can we not have a series of each denomination, like they do sometimes with the quarters and like we do almost monthly with stamps? Is there some kind of international convention on this that says only one person per bill per series for a certain number of years? Maybe it is prevent confusion and counterfeiting, I don’t know but with the modern plastic security bills that surely should no longer a concern. I don’t have a problem with any of the old white dudes there already, nor even the Queen, who is after all still the head of state. But I don’t see why we could haven’t ten or a dozen variants of each bill with a different head on each one. Chief Tecumseh should be on one of them though.

  2. Your point about how schools are limiting physical activity is bang-on, but don’t dis the bikes.

    Stationary bikes in classrooms can be very helpful for self-regulation for many kids with special needs (like mine).

    1. I can’t agree. This is a clear example of looking to overly complicated and expensive technology to address a “problem” that “we” created. Recess time is short and infrequent and gym classes have been cut. Kids, especially kids with behavioural issues, really need regular exercise and free play to be healthy and happy. Low-income working parents (myself included) don’t always have the time or money to enroll our children in athletic programs outside of school. Exercise periods during the school day help kids to better focus on their studies, to improve their emotional well-being, and give them less structured opportunities to learn how to socialize with others. Stationary bikes in schools – few and far between owing to cost – wouldn’t be needed if recreation programs in schools hadn’t been cut but they’re convenient and their access and use can be more easily controlled. It’s a sad state of affairs.

      1. And my kid has special needs, as well. If a bike is the only thing he’s being offered over the course of a day, I’ll take it but, really, send them outside to play (too).

      2. I think we’re missing the point of the stationary bike story. The bike is not meant to replace or augment exercise during recess/gym time (which should be increased separately IMO). I agree with your points about the importance of getting exercise during a school day, and Ms. Jones’s about over protecting children, but the bike is there to help kids deal with anger/frustration etc. during class time. I see it as a form of meditation or just a reprieve the stagnant classroom environment where these feelings can can manifest in worse ways, or be bottled up. This should be an option, but not an end all solution. It’s not feasible to let kids leave the classroom to run a lap around the school whenever they want to calm themselves down.

  3. Re: 3. Blame it on the seals… Canadian Senate Fisheries & Oceans Standing Committee voted Mar 8 to press for a National Seal Products Day. Set for May 20, also EU “Maritime Day”.
    A Canadian Senator wants to promote Inuit, and other community seal hunting here in Canada, in light of the ongoing difficulties caused by a European Union ban on seal products, and general public misconceptions about the seal hunt in this country.