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Sunday, August 29 - Dancing in the Shadow of Razor Wire

The events culminating in Operation Big Scoop stood in sharp contrast to those I described in the correctional journey along the Red Road one week before. In the weekend after Operation Big Scoop, there was another event at Matsqui which provided a unique opportunity to reflect on the conflicting objectives and ideals permeating contemporary imprisonment. Well before Operation Big Scoop was conceived, the Native Brotherhood had been given approval to hold a powwow on Sunday, August 29. Because Operation Big Scoop was seen as successful, with no violence or other resistance from the general population, the warden determined that the powwow should go ahead as planned. Prior to his segregation, Darryl Ghostkeeper, as President of the Brotherhood, had asked that I come as one of the guests.

The powwow was held in the back field of the prison and was attended by 150 guests and 70 prisoners, mostly members of the Brotherhood but also some non-Aboriginal prisoners. Powwows are held all over western Canada during the summer months, with Aboriginal communities hosting their relatives and friends from other places. Like other powwows, the Matsqui powwow was a blend of formal presentations, informal gatherings with elders, dancing and drumming, the sharing of private time with family and loved ones, and a splendid barbecued meal of salmon, deer, buffalo, hamburgers, and hot dogs.

An important part of any powwow is the giving away of gifts. The Matsqui powwow was no different; included in the gift receivers were Ken Poirier and Jill Hummerstone. I was honoured to be given a drum made by Cory Bitternose. He told me it was one of the first drums he had made, and he wanted to share it with me because on the day of his temporary absence pass I had treated him with respect, as a human being and not as a prisoner.

A group of Brothers formed a drumming circle, and throughout the afternoon their drumming and singing provided the accompaniment for the festivities. The four men who had been on the pass to gather lava rock were part of this drumming circle. The relationship between their participation in the powwow and their work outside the prison was symbolically represented in the act of giving to all the guests, in the shadow of Mount Baker, the bundles of sagebrush they had gathered in the shadow of the mountains outside Lillooet. When the sagebrush was being harvested, the Brothers had said prayers thanking Mother Earth for giving up her bountiful gifts. Today, the Brothers passed on those gifts to be used by their families and friends in ceremonies that would link them in a circle with the Brothers within Matsqui.

At one point Dennis Bigsky and Cory Bitternose danced around the drumming circle. Dennis, an accomplished dancer, had borrowed a costume from one of the members of the dance group that had come in from the community. Cory did not have a costume, so he danced in his sweats, also displaying the joy and spirit of a dancer. Although they were physically dancing within a hundred feet of a high barbed wire fence and a gun tower, it seemed to me that these Brothers had spiritually escaped the confines of prison and renewed their connection with an inheritance that had never needed places of confinement.

My optimism at seeing Aboriginal prisoners throw off the mantle of imprisonment was tempered by my scepticism regarding correctional authority. One of the first people I saw at the powwow was Rick Ambrose, who had been on the original list of prisoners to be segregated in Operation Big Scoop. He had escaped this fate as a result of discussions among the unit managers, in which Irv Hammond had said he was confident there was no negative file information on Mr. Ambrose. Given that the same could be said for other prisoners who were scooped, Mr. Ambrose's exclusion from the list was almost happenstance. The afternoon of the powwow, I watched him hold his three-month-old daughter and embrace his wife with a tenderness and serenity that few staff members had likely observed during his lengthy imprisonment.

That afternoon in many ways encapsulated the competing themes of change and continuity in the nature of imprisonment. There clearly had been enormous changes. Ten years earlier, when the first hunger strikes were carried out by the Brotherhood at Kent Institution for the right to exercise Aboriginal spirituality, it would have been difficult to imagine holding a powwow inside a federal prison. Yet now that this had become a reality, the President of the Native Brotherhood, instead of welcoming participants to the celebration, found himself in a segregation cell, placed there through a process that he rightly perceived as the arbitrary exercise of authority -- no different in kind from the arbitrary exercises of power that had been part of correctional practice ten years before.

The commitment and sensitivity displayed by Jill Hummerstone and Ken Poirier, the staff supervisors of the powwow, were by any standards a model of professionalism tempered with cross-cultural understanding, a combination that was seen rarely a decade before. Yet that also had its negative counterpoint. During the course of the afternoon, I heard from several people that their visitors had been given a hard time at the front gate by some of the staff, who seemed to feel it was a mistake to allow the powwow to proceed in the wake of the previous week's events. One visitor with two children, a baby in arms and a toddler in a stroller, had been told she could not bring the stroller into the prison, but would have to carry the children the 400 yards or so to where the powwow was taking place. When Ken Poirier heard about this, he not only walked to the front gate to approve the entry of the stroller but personally pushed it and the child back to the gathering.

In the bigger picture, however, the mean-spirited interpretation of rules by a few staff could not change the fact that the Matsqui powwow provided a much-needed space in which prisoners, their families, and members of their communities could celebrate their common humanity.

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Cory Bitternose