The Chronicle Herald with Kim Pate 20 September 2018
Dalhousie’s Schulich School of Law will host a national conference on Canadian prison law this weekend, bringing experts and stakeholders from across the country for what participants are calling a timely and important series of discussions on prison issues.
Adelina Iftene, assistant professor at the School of Law and secretary of the Canadian Prison Lawyers Association, said on Wednesday that with more than 200 people registered to attend, interest in the conference has exceeded expectations.
“There are lawyers from all over the country, judges, academics, students, and community activists, NGOs, governmental actors who have either submitted to speak at the event or simply registered to come and engage in the conversation,” Iftene said.
The conference has a busy agenda of legal panels as well as several that are open to the public, including the keynote panel on Friday evening.
That panel will include Canadian Supreme Court Justice Thomas Cromwell, Nova Scotia Justice Anne Derrick, Canadian Senator Kim Pate, Debbie Kilroy, CEO of Sisters Inside Inc. of Queensland, Australia, Dr. Ivan Zinger, Canadian Correctional Investigator and Dr. Pamela Palmater, associate professor and Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University. The panel will be moderated by Chief Justice Michael MacDonald.
Topics throughout the weekend will range from reintegration and supports, health care, and how prison law can be taught to students to Indigenous issues and anti-Black racism.
For Pate, who spent decades working for the rights of people in prisons through her work with the John Howard and Elizabeth Fry societies before being appointed to the Senate in 2016, the conference provides a chance to bring the many issues with the Canadian prison system to the fore at a time when many Canadians are becoming increasingly aware of them.
“I think that many people, myself included, think that it’s time to look at the ways in which the laws are being applied across the country and what options could be put in place to ensure that all Canadians have access to appropriate health care, particularly mental health care, social services and the supports that we know are more likely to prevent people from both being marginalized and victimized and therefore also being criminalized in prison,” Pate said.
“I’m quite hopeful that we’ll see not only some excellent presentations but some very good recommendations and some potential ways forward for the future.”
Another organizer of the conference, Hanna Garson, vice-president of the East Coast Prison Justice Society and board member of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia, said society’s knowledge of prisons has essentially existed in “a black hole,” because the focus tends to end with conviction or acquittal of those accused of breaking the law.
“So the prison law conference is really exciting because it’s an opportunity for people to come together and to strategize,” Garson said. “A lot of change needs to be made and there are resources across the country so kind of focusing on them and coming together in this organized way has not only potential to bring attention to it in Nova Scotia, which is exciting locally, but also to do a lot of information-sharing for strategy.”
Activist El Jones, a former poet laureate for the city of Halifax, will read a poem to open the keynote panel and will take part in one of the discussions as moderator of the lunchtime special panel on racism on Sunday.
Jones said in light of the recent protest by prisoners at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Institution in Burnside, the conference is particularly important at this time.
“So there’s been a number, I think, of issues that have increasingly been coming up,” Jones, who holds the post of Nancy’s Chair in Women’s Studies at Mount Saint Vincent University, said.
“There’s been a number of successful habeas corpus rulings in court around solitary confinement, as well. So the conference in particular is aiming at expanding that practice. So often, law practice ends when the doors shut on the jail, so part of practising prison law is about thinking about how that extends into institutions.”