Art for a New Future: Spotlight on Free Lands Free Peoples

On Thursday, June 24th, Justice Arts Coalition’s 2021 National Convening, Art for a New Future, is set to begin. Our team has worked incredibly hard to bring together an amazing group of speakers and panelists, and this blog series spotlights just a few of them to give you a taste of what you can expect from the convening. Registration is open now, and you can view the full schedule and registration info here. For folks with limited means and/or who are system-impacted, reduced-price and free tickets are available. 

Our second conversation is with Free Lands Free Peoples, an Indigenous-led anti-colonial penal abolitionism group based in amiskwaciwâskahikan, Treaty Six and Métis territory. The group is a member of the Saskatchewan-Manitoba-Alberta Abolition Coalition (SMAAC), an alliance of groups from across the prairie provinces of Canada who collaborate and organize together on issues of prison and police abolition. Members do popular education and solidarity work in an often hostile socio-political context, inside and outside prison. Their interactive workshop will introduce participants to the idea of anti-colonial penal abolition and its connections to creative expression as a tactic of “imagining otherwise.” An anti-colonial abolitionist lens foregrounds and illuminates how the prison system supports settler colonialism and obscures Indigenous justice traditions. Abolitionist creative expression, through music, movement, writing, art, and more, acts as a means to imagine and move into worlds without and beyond prisons, policing, and colonialism. Their session will be at 12:05pm EST on Thursday, June 24th. Register here.

Justice Arts Coalition: Where do you place your organization at the intersection of arts and justice? Where is your expertise, and where are you excited to go and learn?

Free Lands Free Peoples: Free Lands Free Peoples is primarily a group dedicated to popular education about anti-colonial penal abolition in the prairie provinces. We noticed that much of the abolition work that takes place in so-called Canada is situated in the central-East of the country (especially Toronto and Montreal) and on the West coast (namely Vancouver). While there is a huge number of Indigenous people incarcerated on the prairies, and the colonial violence in our region has a distinct history and character, there is little public discussion on alternatives to prison and police in our communities. We originally intended to produce a podcast as a teaching and learning tool for people on the prairies, but the onset of COVID-19 pushed us in unexpected directions to support incarcerated people more directly through material support, coalition building, and solidarity organizing. 

Art is a crucial component of education in our work. We are informed by the creative expression of incarcerated prairie Indigenous people, whose artistic tradition dates back to at least the 19th-century ledger drawings of Plains Indigenous warriors imprisoned in Florida at the end of the so-called “Indian Wars.” Art, just like abolition, is simultaneously a form of resistance to oppression and a form of imagining otherwise: dreaming new worlds and ways of being that we can fight to realize. 

I think we are in many ways in a space of possibility with our art and public education work. Having a creative element came naturally to us as all of us are involved in the creative arts in some capacity. Our workshop that we will be running for the conference is really a starting place. I hope for new connections, not just with relatives but with the ways that we interact with dreaming a new/old world through the process of imagination. Some of us in the group facilitate creative writing on the inside, and I like to think of that space as a transformative one, maybe not in the ways that people normally think about prison abolition, “transforming” the individual, because we aren’t interested in that rhetoric. But rather, maybe we can see it as a space where we can through our collective imagination and capacity, imagine something beyond the prison walls–temporarily transform that space into one where we can be in good relations with our relatives, if even for a moment. That moment is everything, when you are trying to work within and against a system that denies you the ability to take care of each other. 

JAC: How did you get involved in this work and why is it important to you?

FLFP: After a creative writing session on the inside, it was just so clear to us how the system was not only a horrific and violent system, but an infringement on the rights of our peoples, land, and other than human beings. We felt sparked to do something to help people get to a place of understanding, of abolition as a necessity and inevitability. So we gathered the 3 of us, and we just started working towards that goal. 

JAC: Why are Indigenous justice traditions essential to the current abolition movement and to imagining a world without police and prisons? How does settler violence interact with and reinforce our current systems of punishment?

FLFP: I’ll answer the second part of this question first. The development of police and prisons and their co-constitutive institutions (i.e., schooling, child welfare, etc.) in the prairie provinces is intimately linked to Indigenous dispossession, disappearance, and violent settler-colonial expansion into prairie Indigenous territories. The ongoing system of settler-colonialism (and thus the Canadian state) requires that Indigenous peoples and individuals disappear from the land. That disappearance has taken many forms through the centuries: genocide of the buffalo and deliberate starvation of our peoples, intentional spreading of disease and medical neglect, police and lay settler brutality (and particularly gendered and sexual violence) against Indigenous people, the creation and carceral administration of reserves for First Nations and systemic administrative neglect and exclusion of the Metis, the creation and deployment of the NWMP/RCMP as an anti-Indigenous occupying military force, the criminalization of our ceremonies and lifeways, Residential Schools, the surveillance and control of Indigenous presence and movement in so-called “public” spaces, particularly in urban centers, the criminalization of land and water defense, the theft of our children into foster care, high rates of Indigenous incarceration, etc. It is crucial to recognize these settler-colonial tactics of disappearance as part of a continuum that is both genocidal and inherently carceral, tactics that facilitate the raison d’etre of Canada: clearing Indigenous lands for settlement and resource extraction. In the prairie provinces, Indigenous people can make up 90% or more of prison populations, and Indigenous people are among the most heavily policed and criminalized. 

Non-carceral Indigenous justice traditions are absolutely central to our understanding of abolition on the prairies. Earlier we mentioned that imagining otherwise was a key aspect of our artistic and abolitionist practice. As Indigenous people working towards abolition in our territories we also have the capacity to remember otherwise, to draw upon our peoples’ own ways of relating and resolving conflict that are place- and peoplehood-based and that take into consideration humans as beings-in-relation alongside the lands, air, waters, and other-than-humans. 

JAC: In your time in this work, how has the struggle shifted, and in what ways has it remained the same?

FLFP: FLFP was really only starting to get organized when COVID-19 hit. With COVID and the mass movement against police violence led by Black Lives Matter organizers in 2020, there was rapid and widespread critical education about the true role of police and prisons as agents of white supremacy, cisheterosupremacy, capitalism, and colonialism. Over the course of the pandemic, there has been increased public consciousness of the horrible conditions prisoners are subjected to in prison generally and the intensification of both measures of control/containment as well as the vulnerability and neglect prisoners have faced during the pandemic. 

The dangers of COVID-19 have highlighted what abolitionists have long said about the lethal effects of the system. But the perils of COVID have also created possibilities, including by drawing attention to the feasibility of rapid decarceration. In the prairie provinces, for example, some provincial jails saw the number of incarcerated people decrease by up to 30% during the first wave of the pandemic. In addition, prisoners were galvanized to organize for change in a way not likely witnessed since the organizing of the Native Brotherhood inside Canadian prisons in the late-1970s. In Saskatchewan, prisoners from multiple institutions worked together to coordinate letter-writing campaigns and self-described peaceful protests, including numerous hunger strikes, some with over 100 strikers. Solidarity was built between prisoners and outside advocates across the prairies and beyond, who worked to support and amplify the voices of those inside. 

We have also seen a significant increase in curiosity and interest from individuals and groups about penal abolition, and have had the opportunity to connect with abolitionist organizations from across the prairie region to support one another and coordinate events and efforts. We are already seeing some of the pushback from police and “justice” departments in the prairies- the PR teams are out in full force these days! But we are optimistic that the events of the past year and a half will not be entirely recuperated by the state, and that we’re going to see more and more support and concrete action against cops and prisons, and in support of currently and formerly incarcerated people. 

JAC: Lastly, what are you excited about for your upcoming session at the convening? How does it connect to any of our four values: Art as Abolition, Art for All, Solidarity and Community, and Participatory learning?

FLFP: Intersecting with the values of art as abolition and solidarity & community, our session will prompt attendees to enact the imagining/remembering otherwise of anti-colonial abolition through their own creative writing practice. Through facilitated writing activities, we will ask audience members to think deeply about whose land they are on and about the necessary connection between location/land and the ways in which we do or can imagine abolitionist futures. What are the relational responsibilities we have to the human and more-than-human peoples of the lands we inhabit, and what do we need to learn in order to more ethically and fully engage in abolition on these lands? We are excited to facilitate a conversation about the centrality of Indigenous life, land, and sovereignty to abolitionist praxis across Turtle Island. 

There is no abolitionist future without indigenization and the centering of Indigenous life, land, and sovereignty across borders and in the dissolution of borders. The carceral system is a mindset of punishment, but it also is intricately connected with land and space. Our prisons generate power through the displacement of people and the severance of their community and ties with their homes. We must resist. Convene with Free Lands Free Peoples next Thursday at 12:05 and join us in beginning the work of decolonization through writing. Register here. 

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