Criminal Law Journal no. 2: “Prison is the new residential school.”

I am very thankful for my experiences that I have encountered in law school this far, and it is barely a month into this multi-year journey. On this particular evening, I attended the special guest lecture by William Mullins-Johnson, who talked about his experiences within the criminal justice system as a wrongfully convicted person. I did not know Mullins-Johnson before this presentation. But I do recall reading about his case while I was living in London, Ontario.

When I first read about his case, there were no details about the history of his case. I remember reading an article in the London Free Press and it briefly mentioned Mullins-Johnson. To me, at the time, this was just another news article and I went on to read the next news article. I did not think for a moment about those people who were affected by Dr. Charles Smith’s extremely flawed pathology reports. But the moment Mullins-Johnson said he was from Sault Ste. Marie and from an Aboriginal background, my heart sunk to my stomach. When I lived in Sault Ste. Marie, I do not remember his case in detail. I would have only been about seven or eight years old.

Mullins-Johnson presentation represents something that I find is lacking within the cases that I read. For instance, the cases that I have read so far in each of my classes focus on the facts relevant to the issues, for obvious reasons. However, to build upon the articles I read for class on September 9, the conventional legal education framework, which relies on the case law, may erase the person and the story behind the cases. I almost did not attend the Mullins-Johnson presentation because I felt I did not have enough time. I am glad I did set some time to attend his presentation.

I did not know too much about the presentation before attending. I think if I would have been aware of the fact that the presenter was from Sault Ste. Marie, I may not have attended. There is a history I left behind in Sault Ste. Marie that I sometimes do not wish to return too. However, attending the presentation reminded me that my decision to apply to law school is not about me. My decision to enter law school is much larger than personal interests or individual desires. My decision to enter into law school is about helping other Indigenous persons and Indigenous communities. Mullins-Johnson’s presentation reminded me of this decision.

At the end of the presentation, I was able to ask Mullins-Johnson a question. I asked him about his opinion on the restorative justice approach within the criminal justice system. As an Indigenous woman who has experience with this approach, I tend to find the restorative justice approach goes unquestioned while inadvertently (or perhaps purposively) maintaining the status quo. Almost everyone praises this approach without questioning the contradictions within it. Indigenous offenders have to plead guilty before they can access cultural and personal supports and these supports only readily available while in prison. These cultural and personal supports should be in place before it is too late—once the crime is committed and once the Indigenous person pleads guilty. When speaking about the history of residential schools and the Aboriginal prison population, a former mentor of mine said, “It [residential schools] was an institution that took away our culture and it [prisons] is an institution that is giving it back.” Prison is the new residential school.

Despite being triggered during his lecture, Mullins-Johnson was a breath of fresh for me. It was validating to hear another Indigenous person, especially one from my own community, talk about the realities of the prison system in Canada and the racism within the system. I have witnessed and experienced the systemic and institutional racism he shared with my peers. It is nice (sadly) when I do not have to be the only Indigenous person to bring up these realities. Growing up with these experiences is sometimes disheartening. One almost wants to give up when one begins to internalize the messages these systems and institutions are sending: the problem is you, not them. But this law school journey is not about me. As I said earlier, it is much larger than that; it is about helping others. I am thankful for being able to attend Mullins-Johnson’s presentation and to be able to attend law school.

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