On display in the Northern News Services newsroom is an old, yellow, wooden shield transcribed with the adage, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”
The idea is much older than the phrase itself, which was popularized in 1839 by English author Edward Bulwer-Lytten in his play Richelieu, or the Conspiracy. Before Bulwer-Lytten, Assyrian scholars, Greeks, the ancient authors of the bible and Shakespeare played with the idea.
A line in act II of Hamlet, written in 1600, states: “many wearing rapiers are afraid of goosequills.”
Fast forward to last week, when several inmates at the North Slave Correctional Centre (NSCC) readied their own goosequills in a letter writing campaign to protest what they see as indignities at the jail.
More than a year after inmate Denecho King’s escape from the facility, the outdoor recreation area remains closed. This means traditional healing activities such as as sweats and drumming remain on hiatus. Others complain pricey long-distance phone calls leave inmates isolated from their families in the communities. The expensive canteen is also highlighted as a sore spot. On top of all this, a program to help inmates achieve their GED, or general education development certification, is no longer offered.
The act of shedding light on these inadequacies is a powerful thing. Not only could it speed up change, but it gives the inmates at the jail a sense of agency. This is no small point to make. To understand why, it’s important to take a moment to consider the underlying factors that lead many of NSCC’s population – a large majority of whom are Indigenous – to incarceration. The legacy of residential schools and colonialism broke families apart. The forced abandonment of Indigenous life ate away at tradition and culture and left many people listless and unemployed, unmoored between how things were and the shoddy implementation of modern society across the North that remains flawed today.
This reality became the perfect breeding ground for alcoholism, which further destroyed families and personal lives.
On top of this, our society hasn’t fully reckoned with the toll fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) and other mental-health issues are taking on the court system. FASD, which is caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol, causes a myriad of cognitive and emotional defects that range from mild to severe. But because there is no signature symptom, it is extremely difficult to diagnose. This is a problem because for a judge to include FASD as a factor in sentencing, there needs to be a medical diagnosis.
In 2014, Yukon MP Ryan Leef introduced a private member’s bill to make it easier for the court system to acknowledge FASD in cases where there is a preponderance of evidence, but that bill did not pass. So, many people repeatedly make their way through the courts without anybody ever acknowledging the underlying medical condition that leads to their behaviour. Of course, FASD is only one of many mental-health issues that lead to the same outcome.
Some people might read about the NSCC letter writing campaign and dismiss the complaints based on the criminality of the authors. But it’s important to remember many of these criminals are victims themselves of a society that shattered homes and shattered individual lives. People who will continue to end up back in jail if it is merely a box where they sit around and wait for their incarceration to end instead of studying for their GED, healing through traditional activities, reaching out to their loved ones back in the communities without a high surcharge and nourishing themselves with good food.
This is why it’s so powerful that inmates at the NSCC have chosen to reach out to the public. It’s reasonable to believe many of the authors of these letters have rarely ever really felt heard, that their voice matters, that their needs should be met. So for them to write these letters and believe they might instigate change is an act of faith. In return, if the public reacts by supporting the letter writers, over the rather than indignation that they have the audacity to ask for improvements, it could help lead to positive change, not just to the jail but to these people’s lives. Just the fact that Justice Minister Louis Sebert has vowed to respond to each letter will certainly demonstrate their words have power.
Kudos to the letter writers for advocating for themselves. Now we can do our part by listening to them and believing they are worthy people who have the power to make their own lives better. Because probably the most important lesson, especially for people who have lived lives surrounded by violence, is that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword.