Remembering the prison next door


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Growing up in Manitoba, I was aware of the looks I would sometimes get when someone asked where I was from. It wasn’t a secret; I grew up in a prison town.

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Growing up in Manitoba, I was aware of the looks I would sometimes get when someone asked where I was from. It wasn’t a secret; I grew up in a prison town.

Stony Mountain Institution commands the prairies to this day. It stands on a limestone outcropping, towering 30 metres above a flat patchwork of fields that stretch for miles in all directions. It was then — as it is now — the first thing you saw as you drove into town, and the last thing in your rear-view mirror.

Life across the street from Canada’s oldest running federal prison was home for me. It was always there, fading into the landscape as life carried on. From the days that I rode off to family dinners in the back seat of our car to the age that I could drive myself home from high school in the city — its beige façade and black domed tower were unchanging.

<p>Stony Mountain Penitentiary first opened in 1877. (Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Stony Mountain Penitentiary first opened in 1877. (Winnipeg Free Press)

Occasionally, we heard the sirens when an inmate walked off from a work detail. Whenever it happened, most of us went indoors, shut the blinds and turned on the radio for updates.

Our schoolyard backed onto a field on the prison grounds. I can recall a day when a middle school classmate heckled a group of inmates who were out working under supervision. One of the men turned and began walking through the mud in our direction. Everyone bolted back to the school doors. We were separated only by a wooden fence about four feet tall, with strands of barbed wire in between.

It was scary at the time. We knew he was a prisoner. The news and warnings from our parents assured us that this was someone who was dangerous.

Yet when I look back at it, the man seemed to solemnly walk in our direction. He didn’t run at us, he didn’t shout, he didn’t swear.

Decades later and thousands of kilometres away, it can be surreal to think about how this all seemed so ordinary. The prison was a silent backdrop to my life. Aside from the rare moments of fear I experienced, what troubles me most today is the darker side of the prison that I didn’t recognize then.

I grew up in the shadow of a fortress of colonial oppression.

The prison first opened in 1877 — only seven years after the Red River Resistance and the dream of its Métis leaders for a Manitoba that respected the rights and traditions of Indigenous peoples was quashed. Along with it disappeared any hope of entering the Canadian confederation freely as equals rather than subjugated.

When Stony Mountain Institution’s gates first opened, much of the city of Winnipeg was a scattering of wooden houses and small shops clustered near a modest downtown. Building a prison seems to have been a priority for the new settler government; a visceral monument to their presence and domination of the Indigenous Peoples that sought to resist it and still made up most of the population in those early, post-Confederation days.

To this day, that legacy of repression and colonialism lives on. The overwhelming majority of prisoners incarcerated at Stony Mountain — many still within its comparatively ancient walls — are Indigenous. In a province where a little over 18 per cent of residents identify as First Nations, Métis or Inuit, Indigenous men collectively make up more than 65 per cent of the prison’s inmate population.

While telling people about the town where I grew up may have triggered fear or uncertainty at first, I cannot help but think of it today — at least in part — as a monument to sadness.

When I watched Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Garrison Settee visit the institution on National Indigenous Peoples Day last year, I was looking for traces of the place I might recognize in the background. I noticed the bright sun shining over a largely treeless landscape and a small stand of young elm trees swaying in the wind, things I remember vividly from my childhood.

But beneath the surface of that familiar landscape, I heard current inmates speak about the legacy of intergenerational trauma that has incarcerated generations of Indigenous men: the abuse of the residential schools and the ’60s Scoop — the mass removal of Indigenous children from their families into the child welfare system. It feels like a complex but inescapable conclusion: whatever the journey to the prison’s gates, our society — with all of its legacy of systemic biases, laws and prejudices — strove hard to pave that path.

It’s difficult to reconcile looking back on my childhood.

The countless days that I would ride my bike freely around town, snaking along trails that cut through the Stony Mountain quarry. Or the times that we would run through the football-sized field in front of my house in the rain in our bathing suits, dancing in puddles, laughing endlessly. My childhood was full of these kinds of moments. Memories of the freedom that comes from growing up in the country, in a place where it felt like no one was watching. A place where you could have all the fun you could come up with.

And yet, right across the road from these joyful moments, hundreds of disproportionately Indigenous inmates were confined. Out of touch with their culture, way of life and family connections.

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs have called it a national crisis.

I lived in Stony Mountain for 18 years, and yet all of this was obscured. A reminder that the dark legacy of colonialism doesn’t just exist in some faraway place that we hear about on the news.

Sometimes it can be right across the street.

» Jennifer Lee is a Toronto-based communications professional and a graduate of the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy. This column was previously published in the Winnipeg Free Press.

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