Books·Borders

tally recounted by Cecily Nicholson

Cecily Nicholson won the 2018 Governor General's Literary Award for poetry for Wayside Sang.

An essay by the 2018 Governor General's Literary Award winner for poetry

tally recounted is an essay by Cecily Nicholson. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

For many years, every couple weeks I have driven with one or two other volunteers to the Fraser Valley Institute for Women (FVI), a federal, multi-level prison. Correctional Services Canada facilities dot the land. Where people are incarcerated often is far away from family, friends and home towns. I visit FVI as part of a group called Joint Effort, which started in 1979 as a sub-committee of the BC Federation of Women. Our group, as Lora McElhinney describes it, "seeks to bring women from the outside community together with women from the community inside prisons to work on and discuss areas of mutual interest and be a place where a woman can speak her mind and be supported." We are secular, unaffiliated and seek no government funding. Of course we are aggravated by the very idea of prison let alone its material presence.

We imagine dismantling this economic, judicial and carceral classification system that is violently heteronormative, racist and discriminatory. It serves as a terrible place for those contending with illness, addiction and trauma—many of whom are being over-classified as maximum security risks, in ways akin to solitary confinement. While our current federal government appeals the 2018 B.C. Supreme Court ruling that found the exercise of indefinite solitary confinement to be unconstitutional, the international Convention Against Torture treaty decries the practice. Indigenous women endure the highest rates of incarceration in Canada today, that rate having doubled in the last decade. Should the prison system be an outcrop of genocidal state policy then dismantling this system would be a critical act toward the non-colonial. And in some places, the system is knowable and locatable.

Here there is no entry without notice, papers and security clearance. Everything is counted.- Cecily Nicholson

It is a border, the entry point to FVI off of King Road, on S'olh Temexw, traditional territory of the Stó:lō people. Entering the grounds of the Matsqui facility, the similarities to a national border crossing are evident. Here there is no entry without notice, papers and security clearance. Everything is counted. Upon approval of a schedule, activities and itemized materials — 12 skeins of embroidery thread, 32 sequins, 25 paper appliques, 37 mother-of-pearl buttons — we bring materials for craft through security, like airport security, to arrange classes, creative writing projects and music events. Everything must be cleared many months in advance. Say, a performance with Sawagi Taiko and the Native Sisterhood drummers during the local Powell Street Festival.

Each year during the February 14th Women's Memorial March we honour women of our communities who have been murdered and disappeared. In the prison, cloth squares are decorated and inscribed with messages which we then sew together on the outside and carry as one of the banners in the annual Vancouver march. Each square and the completed banner are photographed and those photos are returned to women inside. In the winter for the past decade or so, women inside make cards and write letters to women on the outside who are HIV positive. Although they don't know each other the epistolary is dear. Daily drawings, journal entries, thousands of beads are put to cloth and loom. Hundreds of pressed flowers make their way into mother's days cards sent or kept. Poetry anthologies have formed for several years at FVI and have been distributed to women's prisons across the country.

I have been surveilled and recorded. Still, I am free to go.- Cecily Nicholson

Upon exit we also proceed through security and our items are recounted. In order to leave this place an institutional hand must press several buttons. I can reclaim my phone/camera, pen and papers. Despite the chill, I note some allium and sage holding fast in the landscaped walk to the gate. I can turn the handle of the gate myself, empowered at this point to facilitate my own exit. My vehicle may have been searched. I have been surveilled and recorded. Still, I am free to go. And if I am willing to comply with a security clearance process that is discriminatory and breaches privacy, I might be free to return. I know something more after every visit to FVI. That knowledge is not, most definitely not, what it means to be imprisoned, or to weather most implications of stigma, violence and criminalization. In thinking on sociality and art come through dispossession, displacement and disabling conditions to persevere in the modern prison — an arm of the nation to which a ward is subject — is as much a matter of sovereignty, consciousness-building and international relations, as any other terrain. These practices we witness are situated within art and other history, even as they may be unexhibited or unpublished in the contemporary. As I cross the threshold of a prison I know more of the critical, determined will and intelligence that must be cultivated to withstand this place that I am so relieved to leave. I am emboldened to strengthen my own practices, to meet the quality of my peers.

Author's note:

This piece grows out of my participation in Doing Sovereignties, a gathering at the Western Front, 2016, as well as my plenary talk for the Canadian Ethnic Studies Association conference, 2018.


Cecily Nicholson accepts the 2018 Governor General's Literary Award from Governor General Julie Payette. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

About Cecily Nicholson

Cecily Nicholson is the author of Wayside Sang, the 2018 Governor General's Literary Award-winning poetry collection about the displacement and history of Black diaspora communities.​

About the series Borders

CBC Books asked each of the Governor General's Literary Award winners to contribute an original piece on the theme Borders: lines that, when crossed, mark a change. Tally recounted is Nicholson's contribution to the series.

Read the rest of the series:

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