“Meaningful existence means a lot to the people of Old Crow.” These words were spoken by my mother, then age 16, to Justice Thomas Berger who had travelled to Old Crow in 1975 to hear from my community during the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry. She went on, “The people of Old Crow still live off the land. Some traditions have been forgotten, but our life is still based on the life of all the others before us. We would like our children and our grandchildren to experience the simple, clean way of life that we have already experienced. These are my reasons for not wanting a pipeline to go through.”
Forty years later, my mother is now graciously Sitsuu (grandmother) and her statement means more to me now as a father. One of the things I am left with from her words is how essential mobility through space and time is to the Gwich’in way of life. This essential mobility not only includes the carrying on and passing down of tradition to our children, but also includes our physical movement out on the land as our ancestors did before us. Mobility and the freedom of movement are at the foundation of our meaningful existence. My mother’s words also impress upon me an understanding that our lives are bound up with the lives of others, and as such, our meaningful existence as Gwich’in is a collective one that gives shape to the responsibilities to those living beings around us.
In 2014-2015 alone, one-third of all Indigenous inmates in federal prisons were put in solitary confinement at least one time and had the longest average stays once there.
All across the North, and indeed Canada, our relatives are being denied such a meaningful existence. Inside federal prisons and provincial & territorial jails, Indigenous people are confined to “the hole” in isolation 23 hours a day for weeks, months, and sometimes years. This practice has been internationally condemned as a form of torture when it is prolonged for longer than a period of 15 days, with lasting mental damage being caused after a only few days of social isolation. To borrow from the English lexicon: Savage.
Sometimes we are forgotten. Eddie Snowshoe, Gwich’in from Tetlit Zheh, hung himself in a 2.5-by-3.6-metre Edmonton prison cell after being left for 162 consecutive days in solitary confinement. After hearing federal lawyers argue at the fatality inquiry that Eddie was to blame because he was not “fully cooperative” while being physically and mentally devastated, Judge James Wheatley concluded: “Edward Christopher Snowshoe fell through the cracks of a system and no one was aware of how long he had been in segregation even though that information was readily available.” Wheatley’s “recommendations” remain just exactly that — recommendations gathering dust with the others. Effie Snowshoe, Edward’s mother, looks for justice that no one in power wants to own up to.
As the blatant neglect of Adam Capay has more recently reminded us, sometimes we are stripped of our humanity in plain sight. Michael Nehass, Tahltan, has been in solitary confinement for the better part of the past five years inside the Whitehorse Correctional Centre. He has since been charged with further offences while suffering through the debilitating effects of his torture, including assaulting a jail guard. On the institution’s part, Michael was dragged naked and shackled in front of a case management judge by three jail guards in riot gear. Somewhere along this institutional malaise, a court ruling that Michael was mentally unfit to stand trial was overturned. Russell Nehass continues to pursue a human rights complaint concerning the deplorable treatment of his son and his deteriorating mental state that has resulted.
Unfortunately these occurrences are not exceptions in Canada. They are the rule.
As communities, we become vulnerable ourselves when we neglect our most vulnerable relatives. We find strength and, ultimately, survival when we live up to our responsibilities.
According to the federal prisons watchdog Howard Sapers, torturing people “has become the most commonly used population management tool” in federal prisons. Last year he reported to Parliament that in 2014-2015 alone, one-third of all Indigenous inmates in federal prisons were put in solitary confinement at least one time and had the longest average stays once there. Nearly three-quarters of those Indigenous inmates had also at some point been placed in a psychiatric hospital. This year he reported that within federal prisons for women, Indigenous women make up 50 per cent of the placements into solitary confinement.
Less is known about territorial jails. According to the Government of Yukon’s 2015 statistics on “separate confinement” in the Whitehorse Correctional Centre, the ongoing torture of Michael Nehass appears non-existent. This type of creative, and indefensible, political accounting — like “restarting the segregation clock” — is the norm across jurisdictions. And while we see federal Liberal and territorial Liberal promises to act on recommendations to reduce the use of solitary confinement, we wait to see those implemented, too. Howard Sapers, who characterized the Conservative government response to these recommendations as “frustrating and disappointing”, reports “[t]hat assessment stands” under a Liberal government with a mandate to address solitary confinement. The clock keeps running.
I recall a story of my Sitsuu, the late Dr. Rev. Ellen Bruce; an incredible woman who, even after age 90, crawled under her house to insulate her pipes before winter. However, as she got into her late nineties, there came certain things she was no longer able to physically do, including one of her favourite activities: picking berries out on the land. Knowing how important this was to my Sitsuu, someone went out and harvested branches from a blueberry bush with berries still intact. They delivered it to her Old Crow living room, and there she sat with a smile picking berries again. This is Gwich’in law.
Indeed, an entire body of Gwich’in oral history involving Shanaghàn (Old Women) speaks to our responsibilities to those who have become physically or mentally vulnerable as my Sitsuu had — made clear in the well-known story of Two Old Women (re)told by Gwich’in novelist Velma Wallis. What these stories tell us is that, as communities, we become vulnerable ourselves when we neglect our most vulnerable relatives. We find strength and, ultimately, survival when we live up to our responsibilities.
I spoke with Effie Snowshoe the other day. Eddie would have turned 31 tomorrow on Remembrance Day. She says maybe she will hold a feast for him at her home. She says through the sadness and heartbreak, it’s the note Eddie left behind that keeps her standing and moving on her two feet: “I want all my personal property to be trashed. Tell my mom that I have no blame at all towards her and that I know she will be strong for the boys.”
We carry all kinds of stories and truths not shared by blunt statistics. We deserve a meaningful existence.
Photo: Old Crow, Vuntut Gwitchin Territory, Yukon. Credit: Kris Statnyk.