Friday, February 17, 2006

Separate But Equal?

The idea of separate prisons for First Nations people is being kicked about by certain politicians. Which certainly makes manifest the musings of many native people themselves that the prisons of today are the residential schools of yesterday. Okay, maybe at first glance the idea of an exclusive native prison or prisons might sound as if it had merit. After all, there are so many First Nations people in prison today, these politicians reason, why not just give them their own prison? Then they can concentrate on their own cultures and promote their own heritage. And during the two and a half years I was in the women's prison in Burnaby I was welcomed by the Native Sisterhood and enjoyed the activities they sponsored. And benefited from them.

In spite of my positive experience with the prison Native Sisterhood, or maybe because of it, I oppose the idea of separate prisons for First Nations. Why? Because it seems to be suggesting that it's okay for a certain large segment of a certain minority racial population to be recognized as a criminal class and organized as a criminal class around race. It suggests that we should just admit, as a society, that there will continue to be a large group of native people incarcerated into the future so let's get on with it and start specializing.

After all, white Canadians have segregated and incarcerated other races before. even aside from the residential schools. The Japanese got a fair share of segregation during the Second World War as did the Germans, and before that, the Dukabour children were taken from their parents and incarcerated behind fences. And lately, there has been the attempt of some Muslims to recreate Sharia law here in Canada which fits into this same mind set, that some races have to be organized under different rules.

In my opinion First Nations people don't need specialized prisons, they need better diets, health care, some decent jobs, an earnest effort to either control the drug scene or legalize it altogether. And some decent housing, never mind the tiny rivulets of blessing, rain down some hard substantial social housing. Segregated prisons are a pitiful answer to the need for social housing. And separate but equal facilities along racial lines smack of the same reasoning behind racial segregation in the deep American south from which I came, a reasoning that kept black people oppressed for centuries. And many First Nations women have been abused by the men of their own communities, as have black and white and Asian women. Anything that further segregates women out from the laws of the larger community raises alarm bells for me. And I hear those bells a ringing.

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