Crystal Kimewon's cousin, Marlan Assinewai, passed away due to prison violence at Millhaven Institution in 2003.
Another young man from her home community of Wikwemikong, Jordan Trudeau, also died at Millhaven for the same reason in 2011. Kimewon herself has spent some time behind bars, albeit years ago.
So it's no wonder Prisoners' Justice Day — an event remembering those who have died unnatural deaths inside Canadian prisons — carries a lot of meaning for her.
Kimewon was among about 50 people who gathered outside of the Sudbury Jail Aug. 10 for the community's annual Prisoners' Justice Day ceremony.
She performed with the N'Swakamok Women's Hand Drummers at the event, which also included speeches, a moment of silence and hymns sung by two musicians.
In an emotional moment, during the last verse of their song, the drummers turned away from the audience and towards the jail. Kimewon said that was to show solidarity for those who are currently incarcerated there.
Knowing people support you is a “really huge deal” when you're in prison, she said.
“It's a very lonely place,” Kimewon said. “You're isolated, if you think about those that are in segregation. I have so many family and community members locked within this very institution. I know so many in there.”
A disproportionate number of those incarcerated in Canadian prisons are aboriginal, she said. “It's not only my lived experience, but the continued experience of so many indigenous peoples,” Kimewon said.
About half of the deaths in Canadian jails are from natural causes. But among non-natural deaths, the most common cause is suicide. The suicide rate for federal inmates is about seven times greater than the general population of Canada.
Many of the offenders who have died by suicide are aboriginal, younger and placed at a maximum security institution.
John Howard Society of Sudbury executive director John Rimore said it's time for Corrections Canada to do something to stop these deaths. “Violent and unnatural death should not be an outcome of incarceration,” he said.
Prisoners' Justice Day was started after a prisoner named Eddie Nalon bled to death at Millhaven in 1974, despite attempts to summon guards for assistance.
The same situation happened at Millhaven again with another prisoner named Bobby Launders in 1976.
On the one-year anniversary of Nalon's death, prisoners at Millhaven refused to work, went on a one-day hunger strike and held a memorial service, even though it meant a stint in solitary confinement.
One the second anniversary of Nalon's death, a one-day hunger strike was held in prisons across Canada. Prisoners' Justice Day is now commemorated around the world.
Rimore said many prisoners still mark the day by fasting or refusing work detail.
“It's important to remember that the people who are incarcerated may have committed very terrible acts of violence or acts that harm their society and communities and other people,” he said.
“But at the same time, they are still humans, and people deserve to live at least in safe conditions while incarcerated.”
A letter written by a woman currently incarcerated at the Sudbury Jail was read at the ceremony by Cory Roslyn, executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Sudbury.
“Prisoners' Justice Day for me is a day to remember that we are people too,” said the letter.
“We've made mistakes in our lives, and not all of us are bad people. Also this is a day to remember all inmates who've passed away in the prison system to suicide, overdoses and murdered.
“Prisoners' Justice Day is a day for all of us prisoners to stand together as one to fight for our rights, and to make change in the system that I believe was created to break us down.
“We are people who have made mistakes, and instead of locking us up, we need help, we need counselling, we need programs. It is then we will have a chance to change our old ways and be new again.”