By Madeleine Macdonald
On National Aboriginal Day, we went to Ottawa.
Ottawa has been getting a lot of love this summer, as countless dollars have been pumped into Canada 150 celebrations. National Aboriginal Day was no exception, and celebrations were held overlooking Parliament. Leaders, elders, and community members feasted and danced; they spoke of reconciliation and snapped photos. By all accounts, a good time was had.
Across the city, nestled among mature trees and strip malls, lies the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre. The OCDC is a remand facility, a sort of processing warehouse for inmates as they move through the justice system. From pre-trial detention to conviction to sentencing to incarceration, this is where inmates stay before they arrive at the correctional facility where they will serve out sentences longer than 60 days. But don’t be fooled by the label. Despite its innocuous name, OCDC is a maximum security facility with everything that entails: barbed wire, industrial food, strip searches, and solitary confinement.
On a beautiful, sunny summer day, a team from the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, Akwesasne Justice Department skipped the downtown parties and schmoozing to celebrate National Aboriginal Day in prison. The percentage of aboriginal inmates at OCDC hovers around 30%, relative to 3.8% of the national population. Despite this, 2017 marked the first time a cultural celebration was held for NAD there. Increased aboriginal cultural and spiritual programming is just one of the recommendations of the OCDC Task Force, struck in March 2016 to address reports of deplorable conditions and overcrowding.
That day, aboriginal inmates who had shown good behaviour were invited out into the yard for a surprise. Native Inmate Liaison Officer Brian David greeted them with smudging before welcoming them into the yard, which held a mid-construction sweat lodge and a circle of chairs. Our guests were treated to a feast of homemade fry bread, corn soup, and fresh strawberries. Wearing his formal Gustowah (feathered headress), Satekaronhioton Fox of Native North American Travelling College told creation stories. Joyce King, Department Director, spoke of culture and restorative principles, emphasizing the importance of knowing one’s identity. In Haudenosaunee culture, to be prepared to for death, each one must know five things: their name, clan, language, song, and their medicine. Then, we danced.
Singing and drumming, the men from the travelling college led and we all followed. Shuffling behind, the women massaged the earth with their feet, just as Sky Woman massaged the dirt on Turtle’s back to create the world. We laughed. We sang. Just like the big shots downtown, we feasted and feted, but there were no photo ops, because cameras are contraband.
And as we were dancing around a barbed-wire enclosed prison yard, an osprey appeared overhead in that blue and cloudless sky, soaring wide and graceful arcs. Beneath him, for a moment, we were all free.