R v Gladue: the history of imprisonment in canada versus slavery in canada

Often times when we talk about slavery, we forget that it happened here in Canada. Recently, I saw a couple of articles shared on Facebook (which I did not save to share here, sadly). These articles talked about the history of slavery and how this institution was never actually abolished. Rather, the institution of slavery was just transferred to another institution, the prison system. I thought to share this definition of slavery, which is applicable to a Canadian context:

A useful definition of slavery is the robbery of one’s freedom and labour by another, usually a more powerful person. Violence and coercion are used to carry out the theft and to keep the slave captive in the condition of bondage and servitude. This definition applies to slavery in Canada. Laws were enacted and institutions created to rob persons of their freedom and labour and keep them in perpetual servitude. In the earliest era of colonial rule in Canada, both Aboriginal people and Africans and their descendants were enslaved (Aboriginal slaves were colloquially termed ‘Panis’). From 1428 to 1833, slavery was a legal and acceptable institution in both French and British Canada was vigorously practised.

– Afua Cooper, “The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal”

I am reminded of this definition and these articles I read on Facebook when I read the case, R v Gladue for my January term class. R v Gladue is known in the legal community for helping to define restorative justice principles via Canadian law. R v Gladue also outlines the history of imprisonment as punishment in Canada.

At paragraph 53 in the decision, the Supreme Court of Canada writes, “The systematic use of the sanction of imprisonment in Canada may be dated to the building of the Kingston Penitentiary in 1835.”

R v Gladue discusses the history of imprisonment but assumes that this type of imprisonment was “new” to Canada at the time the Kingston Penitentiary was built in 1835. Imprisonment at the Kingston Penitentiary was seen as an “alternative” form of sentencing that had effects “which included not only deterrent, denunciatory, and preventive, but also rehabilitative, with long hours spent in contemplation and hard work contributing to the betterment of the offender” (para 53). Note that the above definition which states, “Laws were enacted and institutions created to rob persons of their freedom and labour and keep them in perpetual servitude.”Again, note in the definition of above that slavery was “vigorously practised” until 1833 and the Kingston Penitentiary was built in 1835. Coincidence?

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