by Mina Ramos
On September 17th 2013, 191 immigration detainees at the Central East Correctional Centre (CECC) in Lindsay ON collectively went on a hunger strike. At the time, it was one of the largest prisoner hunger strikes in Canadian history and the first time immigration detainees in Canada protested for their rights en masse. Since then, detainees incarcerated in Lindsay, ON have been fighting alongside former detainees and allies to put an end to immigration detention in Canada.
Background on Immigration Detention
At the very basics, immigration detention is a tactic used by the Canadian government to jail migrants. Many immigration laws have been changed in the last 5 years that it doesn’t matter if you are undocumented, a refugee claimant, permanent resident or citizen. As long as you weren’t born here, you can be subjected to immigration detention.
Here’s an overview of how people become immigration detainees in Canada:
- They commit a crime in Canada. This can be any type of crime. It doesn’t matter how long they have lived here; their status can be taken away and they can be placed in immigration detention
- They had some sort of visa and it expired. Maybe they were applying for permanent residency, maybe they were waiting for another visa to be processed. Doesn’t matter. If they are caught, they will be placed in immigration detention.
- They show up at the airport to make a refugee claim, but the government thinks the claim is a fraud or that their papers or identity aren’t real/true. They will get arrested at the airport and be placed in immigration detention.
The government likes to call immigration detention, “administrative hold”. They say this because technically immigration detainees aren’t actually serving time for criminal offenses. Canada has just decided that they don’t deserve to live in Canada anymore and keeps people detained until they find somewhere to deport them to. Even if someone commits a crime with a prison sentence, they first serve the sentence for their crime and then get put under immigration detention. The problem is, “administrative hold” can mean anywhere from 2 days to 10 years and detainees never know if they are going to win their case and be given bail in Canada or deported back to a country where they: a) are in danger b) have not been to in years c) have never been to at all
Because detainees are technically not serving time, the government also gets away with never giving detainees an actual trial. They have something called a “detention review.” It happens once a month and is the only way a detainee can get out of detention. Instead of a judge, they have a randomly appointed member of the Immigration Review Board (ie. The people who helped to put them in jail in the first place) who meets with detainees over something similar to skype. The whole process is such a joke and the release rates are so low that in June of 2014 detainees in three different prisons including the Central East Correctional Centre boycotted their reviews for the month. To give a statistical view of release rates; in 2013, 7,000 people were held in immigration detention but only 711 or 9% were actually released. In fact, Canada is one of the only “western” countries in the world that doesn’t have a set limit on how long someone can be detained for. It is all based on the detention review process.
In the past eight years, over 100,000 people have been held in immigration detention. Hundreds of these detainees are children. In 2013, 205 children were detained in Canada’s immigration holding centres. Although there are 3 designated immigration holding centres (with a fourth being built in Toronto as we speak), almost a third of all immigration detainees are also held in maximum security prisons. Despite some of the obvious human rights issues with immigration detention, millions of dollars are invested in maintaining this system. Canada Borders Services Agency (CBSA) who play a huge role in detaining people has had their budget balloon from 91 million dollars in 2010 to 165 million dollars in 2014-2015.
To be clear, immigration detention does not affect immigrants coming to Canada equally. 90% of immigration detainees at any point in time are racialized and approximately 75%-80% of all detainees are black. It becomes quite apparent that race plays a huge role in terms of who is profiled and targeted for immigration detention and who isn’t.
Detainees Organizing from Inside the CECC
In August of 2013, the ministry of public safety decided to merge a bunch of detainees from different prisons across Southern Ontario into one unit at the CECC in Lindsay ON; a maximum security prison.
The detainees who had been moved were angry. The move had happened without warning and the majority of them were now hours away from their lawyers and family. Unlike many jails across Canada there was no rehabilitative programming and no opportunities for paid work. With the average prison wage rate of 3 dollars a day across Canada, prison work is nothing to boast about. To go from that to nothing however, was a shock. On top of this, the detainees were being subjected to inhumane living conditions. This included constant lockdowns (which basically means never being let out of the cell), rotten food and mould in the cells and showers.
It was under these circumstances that their hunger strike began in September 2013. The detainees in Lindsay ON were in a unique position. They had previously been scattered across Ontario and for the first time they were clumped together in a large group. They started to talk. They realized that immigration detention itself was extremely problematic. They began to question why they were being held in maximum security prisons when they didn’t have charges or why there was no limit to how long they were being detained. They noticed that because they were on immigration hold, they were not getting equal access to the bail program even if/when they had someone to bail them out. Within the first week of the hunger strike, immigration detainees re-focused and changed their demands drastically. They were now focused on 3 things:
- 1 – End arbitrary and indefinite detention: Implement a 90 day maximum to detention. If removal (deportation) cannot happen within 90 days, immigration detainees must be released. This is recommended by the United Nations, and is the law in the United States and the European Union.
- No maximum security holds: Immigration detainees should not be held in maximum security provincial jails.
- Give immigration detainees fair and full access to legal aid, bail programs and pro bono representation.
Detainees connected with migrant justice organizers on the outside and a phone line (which continues to run to this day) was started to keep up active communication with detainees in Lindsay ON. The collective hunger strike officially ended in the beginning of October but detainees continued to organize. Over the last two and a half years they have drafted and snuck out collective statements and petitions against immigration detention, boycotted their detention reviews, held cell walkouts, had fasts, held meetings to negotiate with CBSA and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and done an exuberant amount of media. Despite all of this, nothing has been done to change any of the laws in respects to immigration detention.
Transformative Justice and Immigration Detention
I have worked on the phone line that connects to detainees since September 17th 2013 and have seen how remarkable their organizing has been. It is difficult to sustain organizing in a prison, let alone when you are also at threat of being deported. Despite this, the guys continuously take risks to speak out and come up with new ideas to fight for their freedom. They hold range meetings and educate new detainees when they are brought in about Canada’s immigration system and why immigration detention is unjust. Packages sent in by allies which contain a history of immigration detention, actions that have been taken to fight against it and media coverage on immigration issues are used to help educate new detainees about their situation.
Apart from the organizing aspect, the detainees look out for each other. Many of them do not speak English and have a hard time advocating for themselves. Often, older detainees will work to try and connect non-English speaking detainees to those that can speak their language to help translate when they need to make phone calls and speak to their lawyers. Although the guys do fight, whenever someone is sent to segregation they call the phone line to check in to see if their friends have called from segregation and are okay. In 2015, when Abdurrahman Ibrahim Hassan died while locked up at the CECC, migrant justice organizers already knew what had happened before he was officially pronounced dead. This was because the guys worked together to know exactly what was going on when Hassan was originally taken out of his cell.
The phone line set up to maintain a connection with detainees and allies on the outside has played a huge role in laying down the foundations for a transformative movement. Although the line was started to hear and support the organizing being done by detainees, it has morphed to be much more than that. Overtime the line has helped to open up many different dialogues that might not have taken place otherwise. For example, in the beginning of their organizing, mental health was something that was rarely brought up by detainees. Through conversations on the line, mental health became a huge topic. As the guys felt less isolated, they opened up about mental health issues both on the line and with each other. In 2015, detainees collectively asked to be individually assessed by a psychotherapist to see how they have been mentally affected by immigration detention.
Although it still has a focus on organizing and bringing up things that come up in the jail, for some the line has also become a place to escape from immigration detention and talk about light hearted things. For others it has become a place to talk about systemic issues. A typical phone line day can look like getting into a debate over why detainees constantly state that they are not criminals and instead exploring the idea of prison abolition, to talking about dating and relationships and the first thing to order in terms of food once they get out of jail. As someone who is queer it has been such an indescribable experience coming out to detainees over time through the phone line and getting into all kinds of discussions around misogyny, patriarchy and homophobia. Since coming out as queer I have always had such a jaded view of cis straight men and at this point spend most of my Tuesdays getting into deep discussions with cis straight men that are deemed by the state as “inadmissible” to Canada but have more brilliance than the politicians who are demonizing them.
I will admit, the movement around immigration detention in Ontario has major fallbacks. Possibly the biggest shortcoming is the fact that at the moment there are very few black people involved in the movement who are not former detainees. This is not the fault of black organizers and community members but rather of migrant justice organizers who have historically failed to reach out and create genuine connections with different black communities or have straight up pushed out black folks from migrant justice organizations. The irony of working with mainly black folks in jail but having little to no black allies on the outside to connect to is too real. Over time, it has become a huge reality check for organizers working with detainees at the CECC to own up to the anti-black racism rooted in the migrant justice movement as it exists and begin to change dynamics that have led up to this. Although I write this article to demonstrate the transformative aspects of this movement, there is clearly a lot more work to be done.
Although many people remain locked up and too many have been deported, there are a few who have been successful in being released from immigration detention since 2013. Just last week, a group of former detainees and people running the phone line gathered for the first time as a group to hangout, eat food and strategize how to continue organizing with those on the inside. The guys exchanged news about different detainees still in jail, joked about sueing CBSA and gave each other advice on how to navigate getting ID’s, work permits, mental health resources…all kinds of things. The feeling of people being together, some of us meeting each other in persyn for the first time is hard to explain in words. We couldn’t stop taking pictures joking about who would be the first one to post on Instagram. No one actively voiced what we were all feeling until after the hangout. The laws might not have changed but the fact that two and a half years later, the struggle to be free and the connection through the phone line has created deep bonds between the guys themselves and us on the line. Bonds that the system hasn’t been able to break despite their best efforts. That people are still so committed to fighting and through the fight have learnt so much about themselves, each other and the ways that we relate to each other as humans is beautiful. That this means we are winning. If that’s not transformative I’m not sure what is.
Mina Ramos is a queer mixed race Latina. She is passionate about ideas, thoughts and issues that centre on migration and the movement of people. She also enjoys listening to all kinds of music and occasionally dabbles in making music on her own.