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Legal experts shared knowledge at sold‑out Canadian Prison Law Conference hosted by Schulich Law
On the evening of Sept. 21, Schulich School of Law Professor Adelina Iftene introduced the opening keynote panel of the 2018 Canadian Prison Law Conference in the same way that all lectures at Dalhousie begin, with these words: “I would like to take a moment to acknowledge that today’s joint event—and of course this whole conference on criminal and prison justice—takes place on ancestral and unceded Mi’kmaq territory.”
It was her next words that silenced the chatter of the 260 people in the Marion McCain Building’s Scotiabank Auditorium.
“I would like for us to think about this, and take it with us throughout every session of this conference,” Iftene continued. “The criminal and prison systems continue to do significant violence to Mi’kmaq individuals and all other Indigenous groups in this country. And yet we have many Mi’kmaq at this conference, in different capacities, welcoming us on their ancestral territory and engaging in substantial conversation on how we should move forward. We are all here to work on building capacity and knowledge that hopefully will lead to a better, fairer system.”
Iftene organized and chaired the three-day conference, which drew legal experts from across Canada and as far away as Australia and Pakistan. It kicked off with the opening keynote panel, which doubled as the law school’s 28th annual F.B. Wickwire Memorial Lecture in Professional Responsibility and Legal Ethics, and continued over the weekend at the law school.
In her introduction, Iftene pointed to the progress that has been made in prison law and prison justice over the last few decades, crediting it to the “remarkable work by lawyers, academics, community activists, and governmental and non-governmental actors, many of whom are in the room today.”
An unprecedented event
The opening keynote panel, Past and Future Developments in Imprisonment and Access to Justice for Prisoners, was moderated by Chief Justice Michael MacDonald (LLB ’78) of the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal and featured The Honourable Thomas Cromwell; The Honourable Kim Pate (LLB ’84); The Honourable Justice Anne Derrick (LLB ’80); Mi’kmaw lawyer, author, and social justice activist Pam Palmater (LLM ’99, JSD ’09); Ivan Zinger, Correctional Investigator of Canada; and Debbie Kilroy, a former prisoner from Australia who became a lawyer.
Mark Knox (LLB ’85), a member of the conference’s advisory committee and president of the Canadian Prison Lawyers Association (CPLA), says it was “blissful to have people working in this field from across Canada gather together in fellowship and to put faces to names.”
Different participants had different priorities and emphases, but the bringing together of perspectives was invaluable.
— Professor Sheila Wildeman
The CPLA held its annual general meeting on Sept. 22, bestowing its first Lifetime Achievement in Prison Law Award to Michael Jackson, QC, Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia’s Peter A. Allard School of Law. The award recognizes Jackson’s decades of trailblazing work in prison law and access to justice for incarcerated individuals; the artwork for it was created by local Mi’kmaw artist Mark Sark.
Schulich Law Professor Sheila Wildeman was a member of the conference’s planning committee, a moderator, and a panelist. “This was an unprecedented event in Canada,” she says. “The central task of a prison justice critique, as I see it, is to expose and respond to the ways that poverty, racism, colonialism, and patriarchy are expressed and reinforced through the prison system. Different participants had different priorities and emphases, but the bringing together of perspectives was invaluable.”
The session topics were broad and diverse, ranging from supporting imprisoned women in pregnancy and mothering to the return of sex offenders to the community (Schulich Law Professor Emeritus Bruce Archibald spoke on that panel) to anti-Black racism in the criminal justice and prison systems. Professor Jocelyn Downie presented on a panel about law and health care in prisons. Alumni Emma Halpern (LLB '06) and Hanna Garson (JD '17) were moderators and panelists.
One of the highlights for Iftene was having so many students attend. “In particular, it was amazing to see the dedication and passion of our student volunteers, without whom this conference would not have been possible. Seeing their professionalism through three 10-hour days of work and their commitment to social justice was one of the best parts.” The student volunteers were Megan Steeves, Alex Strang, Chris Chapin, Desmond Jung, Fabian Suarez-Amaya, D’Arcy Leitch, Andrew Jamieson, and Matt MacLellan.
Those of us who work in this area of law have a great responsibility—not only to continue the work we have done individually or in small groups, but to exponentially increase our collective efforts for reform and for increased access to justice for some of the most vulnerable people in our communities. — Professor Adelina Iftene
Second-year law student Megan Steeves volunteered at the registration table, was a greeter, and timed some of the panelists’ presentations. She attended several sessions and, while she felt all of them had interesting speakers offering a wide range of perspectives, she found the session on pregnant women in prison the most compelling. “It’s something we don’t highlight enough,” she said. “It was really eye-opening, and there was strong audience participation.”
All agree that the conference led to meaningful conversations that challenged the issues of systemic racism in prisons and explored strategies for decarceration. “Those of us who work in this area of law have a great responsibility—not only to continue the work we have done individually or in small groups, but to exponentially increase our collective efforts for reform and for increased access to justice for some of the most vulnerable people in our communities,” says Iftene. “It is my hope that the conference will help with that.”
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