Article published in The Funambulist 12 (July-August 2017) Racialized Incarceration. Click here to access the rest of the issue.
In June 2016, over 45 men in a maximum-security provincial facility leased out by the federal immigration agency in Canada went on a hunger strike. This was the third hunger strike detainees in this prison had organized since September 2013, when over 191 detainees refused food and water, three of them for over sixty days. The news dominated the national headlines, thousands of people signed petitions, and the Minister responsible for enforcement was persistently confronted in public, often by Indigenous activists.
In its immediate aftermath, the Canadian federal government, with the center-right and photogenic Justin Trudeau at the helm, initiated a National Immigration Detention framework, committing CAD$ 138 million (US$ 105 million) to respond to detention concerns. Legislative changes as a result of the framework are expected shortly. Analyzing this framework, released in January 2017, as part of state responses to resistance from behind bars provides apertures through which we can understand the ways in which detention is articulated within the immigration regime and therefore can be dismantled.
I speak about the immigration regime as a carceral system, focusing beyond the detention center, because carceral systems must be examined in continuity. The prison or the detention center, while embodying the obvious node of imprisonment does not exist in isolation. Rather it sits within a web of processes: global displacement, the need for exploitable labor to increase profit, permanent immigration status denial, immigration raids, refusal of services, detention, release, and deportation. Each of the nodes in this web function together, and public pressure at one node can be managed by the state by shifting bodies and force to other points.
Immigration, Colonization and Racisms ///
Canada is one of the few settler-colonies in existence — regions where the invaders never left. As with all these countries, there is little by way of moral legitimacy for the state to determine who comes and goes. In Canada, like in the United States, Israel, and other countries, immigration and colonization have long been interlinked with the Ministry of Immigration, formerly the Ministry of Immigration and Colonization (1917-1936), and later turned into the Ministry of Mines and Resources. Only in 1950 was it given the euphemism Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration. The settler-colonial regime, which continues to date, was consolidated through mass relocation of settlers to conquer and hold Indigenous territories in which they entered. So while im/migrants were and are seen as a necessary part of the colonial project, perceived as machinery to conquer and hold space, this machinery is seen as neither easily available nor easily controlled. As such, the state requires an apparatus to create, that being the dispossession of migrants from their ancestral homes, and manage.
Chinese workers were brought en masse in the 1880s to build the railroads through unceded Coast Salish Territories (also known as British Columbia). Once the project was completed, the Immigration Act of 1906 was quickly introduced, which solidified into law detentions and deportations, also creating an immigration branch of policing tasked with immigration enforcement. The act was accompanied by a number of exclusionary laws that specifically limited the ability of Chinese workers to live in Canada permanently.
While the Chinese workers were brought in to be part of “opening up the West” and thus could have been in an antagonistic relationship with the Indigenous people whose lands were directly affected by the railroad project, these im/migrants formed alliances around shared oppression and shared work building the railroads. Signifiers of this connection are apparent in the way that the names of places were themselves changed. Sto:lo people mark “Sxwóxwiymelh” as a place where a large number of Chinese railway workers died of the flu. The hills opposite the mouth of the Coquihalla River were named “Lexwpopeleqwith’aim,” which means “always screech owls” but the word has a dual meaning. As documented by Professor Henry Yu (quoted by Justine Hunter, The Globe and Mail, 2015), it is a reference to the ghosts of Chinese workers who are said to haunt the area where many were killed during a blasting accident.