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Abolishing a pillar of colonization: the prison system

The acceptance speech for the Roger Inman Award with Joint Effort member Lora McElhinney

I’d first like to acknowledge that we are on the unceded territories of the Coast Salish Peoples: the Squamish, the Tsleil-waututh and the Musqueam. My name is Lora McElhinney and my people come from the traditional territories of the Irish, the Scottish and the English. I am grateful to be speaking tonight about the abolition of one of the pillars of colonization, the prison system and the role of Joint Effort in this fight.

Claire Culhane once said, “we have to fight while we still have time,” in response to the growing reaches of the police state in Canada and the fight for Prison Abolition. I was not part of Joint Effort when she was alive (I joined in 1999), but 25 years after she said this there is no less sense of urgency and “no better fight in town”, although unfortunately there are still prisons.

I went into BCCW with Joint Effort less than a month after I’d gone to Seattle to the WTO for the protests that brought activists and militants, academics and shit disturbers together for three days of theatre, popular education, candlelight gatherings, peace marches, parades, prayer, direct action, non-violent passive resistance, music, drumming, vandalism, arson and unarmed disruption of the police state and the trade talks it was protecting. Tuesday night, running from rubber bullets, tear gas and a monstrous army tank there was no turning back from having seen the show of force and the expressionless, choreographed uniformity of the thousands of police.

So it was with a healthy mistrust I went into BCCW for the first time. What I didn’t realize was what I would learn about freedom, about life, about being a woman, about Native traditions and teachings, spirituality and politics and history, about speaking your mind under surveillance, about never being manipulated into thinking you are changing the system, about those who have died in prison in protest, for prisoner rights and liberation, about creativity and self-expression as modes for liberation and emancipation, about the double-edged sword of education, about the bold faced lie of rehabilitation, about totalitarianism and who is being concentrated and warehoused in prisons sometimes in secret in Canada, about remaining idealistic and realistic after huge defeats such as the passing of the omnibus bills, about breaking isolation, about the capacity of the community to support each other with limited financial resources, none whatsoever taken from the state or church, with centuries of combined experience in community support and advocacy, resistance, art and writing, collective organizing and ally work and with the understanding that those most oppressed by the system are in the best position to know what is wrong with Canadian society.

It is timely that Joint Effort, with its roots in the Women’s Movement, Social Justice Movements and Alliances, Anarchist destruction of oppressive regimes, should win the Roger Inman Memorial Award, now that, to misquote Justin Trudeau, “it’s no longer 2015.” What becomes of the Broken Hearted, what becomes of a system fortified by unalterable totalitarianism, what becomes of hundreds of changes of laws and thousands of words of condemnation. This is a crucial time for the community inside and outside of prisons to push for prison abolition. Even if we could retract every law and policy the Harper government put in place, even if he was put in jail himself, as David Suzuki said he should be this week, this would only obscure the fact that prisons are punitive, obsolete and make even the freedom of those on the outside conditional. To quote a woman we met a few years ago at ACCW who was protesting the lice and foot fungus epidemic inside, “We’re shutting this place down! Call the health inspector. We’re shutting this place down!

Thanks so much to CCEC and to the billions of individuals and organizations and movements who have supported people’s freedom and self-determination anywhere all over the world at any time. It is important to understand how vast, how diverse and how rich we all are together when we admit we don’t want to be imprisoned.

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