An innovative prison writing course offered at the University of Regina is giving students new insights into corrections, while examining the voices of the neglected and ignored.

Rik McWhinney’s apartment is a book lover’s haven. Shelves of books stand here and there along the walls, with more books stacked on top. McWhinney reads non-fiction – mostly histories, biographies, memoirs and collections of poetry. He has no time for genres like novels or science fiction, he says, dismissing the libraries in the prisons where he spent 34 years of his life. Those libraries were mainly stocked with paperbacks that portrayed a romanticized Old West that never existed. So, McWhinney read whatever seemed worthwhile from the libraries at the institutions where he was incarcerated, but he also had what he calls an extra “in”: “People would smuggle books in for me.”

He is currently re-reading Che Guevara’s The Bolivian Diary, an account of the revolutionary’s time spent with rebels intent on overthrowing the Bolivian government. McWhinney suggests he was born rebellious. Soon enough, he was a kid in trouble, running away from a broken home and an abusive step-father, living on the streets of Toronto. At age nine he was labeled as incorrigible and sentenced to a reform school at Coburg, Ontario. There was a lot of physical, emotional and sexual abuse there, he says, without elaborating. He graduated to a maximum-security reform school for youth, where he became even more out-of-control. A few years later he was in a federal penitentiary, where he spent most of his adult life until he was paroled in 2007. “The overwhelming majority of guys I met at reform school I met again at the penitentiary,” McWhinney observes.

Rik McWhinney
Rik McWhinney spent 34 years in corrections facilities. Earlier this year, he was a guest speaker in Jason Demers’ English 110 course, a class focused on prison writing.

During one stretch while he was on the outside, McWhinney stumbled across the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, a high-profile American social and political activist of the 1950s and 1960s. He was impressed by the directness and honesty of Ginsberg’s poetry. By chance, McWhinney bumped into Ginsberg at a poetry reading and had him sign a book. Back in prison, McWhinney struck up a correspondence with Ginsberg that lasted for several years. He also began writing his own poetry. Most of his early work was “just garbage”, he concedes, but he persevered because writing was a therapeutic outlet that served as an alternative to violence.

Today, McWhinney meets regularly with his Friends on the Outside (FOTO) group, and shares portions of his story with interested listeners. Earlier this year, those interested listeners were students in Jason Demers’ English 110 - Critical Reading and Writing course, a class focused on prison writing.

The idea for the course on prison writing originated from Demers’ experience volunteering as a literacy tutor while he was an undergraduate at Queen’s University, working with a prisoner named David at Kingston Penitentiary. “David had an unidentified learning disability. He wrote his words without suffixes, even though he articulated them when reading back his work,” Demers recalls. “He was dealing with some kind of aphasia, and I couldn’t help him. I don’t know how David is doing now, because everything was done on a first-name basis. I can’t track him down, but that experience changed me and stayed with me.”

Demers developed a working definition for the course while researching the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault, who had written histories of how societies have dealt with things like madness, criminality and illness. Demers also learned that Foucault had founded a prison information group of citizens who worked to bring to light what was happening to prisoners in France’s secretive prison system.

“The group didn’t have a political stance. They just thought it was important to break down that wall to allow incarcerated people to speak for themselves,” Demers says.

While some prison writings are thought of as literature – the works of Louis Riel, Oscar Wilde, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King come to mind – Demers conceived the course as a multimedia information-gathering project involving everything from poetry and essays to blogs, podcasts and interrogation videos.

“Our definition of what is English literature has expanded in the last half-century to include all kinds of cultural texts,” Demers says. “We spend a lot of time discussing what’s being said and why, developing various contexts for understanding the material we collect, but the unifying factor is taking time to listen to systematically neglected voices.”

The idea for his prison writing class came from English instructor Jason Demers’ experience volunteering as a literacy tutor at Kingston Penitentiary while a student at Queen’s University.

One of the main goals of the course, Demers explains, is to look beyond the stereotypes that words insinuate, to examine how words carry power, and also to examine the networks, practices and procedures that allow some people to define words, while others live out their effects. “The ultimate aim of the course is to hone students’ critical thinking skills.”

McWhinney readily agreed when Demers – who is a member of McWhinney’s FOTO group – asked him if he would come to a class to relate his experiences, read some of his poetry and field some questions. “I would do anything for Jason,” McWhinney says. He gave the students what he terms a perspective they won’t get from anyone else about spending time in several prisons. Most of his poetry focuses on his experiences in solitary confinement, officially called administrative segregation, and particularly his time in what was called the solitary confinement unit at the maximum-security prison in New Westminster, B.C.

Contrary to the movie stereotype, the solitary cells at that prison were not in the basement, but in a unit built on top of one of the cellblocks, which became known as “the Penthouse.”

Cells were basically small concrete boxes with no windows and only a small slot in the steel doors. Prisoners had no control over the temperature or lights in their cells, although the lights were dimmed at night. Exercise consisted of a half-hour pacing the corridor each day. “For 32 months I didn’t see blue sky or green grass,” McWhinney says.

The B.C. Penitentiary (BC Pen) experienced several riots over the years, including a full-scale riot and hostage-taking in 1976 that lasted for three days. A Citizens Advisory Committee that had been formed at the time by the Correctional Service of Canada helped to negotiate a resolution to the situation. McWhinney wrote about the struggle led by prisoners’ rights advocate Claire Culhane to end the conditions that led to the riots – in his poems Slash Solitary and Prison Justice Day.

Sidney Lebrun
For Sidney Lebrun, taking the prison writing course was so inspirational she changed career paths. After hearing McWhinney’s accounts of prison nurses who were less than kind, she is now studying nursing at the University of Alberta.

The legal action spearheaded by Culhane and other activists resulted in a court decision, which found that solitary confinement as it was carried out at the B.C. Penitentiary constituted cruel and unusual punishment and contravened the Canadian Bill of Rights. One of McWhinney’s possessions that survived riots and his transfers within the prison system is a one-page statement titled Solitary Confinement, written by a criminologist about the court ruling and the effects that solitary confinement has on prisoners.

In response to the court ruling, McWhinney recounts, the prison administration gave the Penthouse a paint job, changed the name to SMU (Super Maximum Unit, the cosmetic change noted in Slash Solitary), installed a larger food slot in the cell doors and gave the prisoners control over the lights in their cells. Still, McWhinney notes, the self-mutilations and suicides continued. (The BC Pen closed in 1980, after 103 years in operation).

McWhinney’s experiences as an activist inmate are an important part of his story missing from his writings. When his friends finally convinced him to upgrade his education, his initial SAT assessment showed that he was reading at a second-year university level. Taking liberal arts and humanities courses with professors from Simon Fraser University and the University of Victoria on-site, McWhinney was soon given a job mentoring other students in the prison.

While he was at Edmonton Institution he became president of the Lifers Group, which sponsored a team in the Special Olympics. He also initiated a one-on-one peer counselling program that empowered designated prisoners to work with other prisoners to address grievances and defuse volatile situations. McWhinney notes that prisoner grievances dropped by 60 per cent after the program was implemented. He recalls one incident where he was able to calm down a prisoner who was angry with a guard and who was threatening to vent his anger on any guard who came into his cell. The alternative would have been for guards to intervene with force, and possibly lethal results. The Correctional Service of Canada eventually ordered that the program be implemented in all of its facilities.

Sidney Lebrun was deeply moved by McWhinney’s appearance in the classroom and she strongly recommends the course to anyone. She began her studies at the University of Regina in journalism, but without a firm career plan in mind.

“In my first year I was taking a psychology class that briefly touched on corrections and justice issues,” Lebrun says. “I also began binge-watching Orange is the New Black, and so when I saw a poster about the course, I was interested.”

Lebrun says she was “immediately astounded” by the first lectures in the course, which provided a condensed history of the prison system, outlining the past and present roles of prisons in society. She recalls McWhinney’s visit to the class as an exceptionally moving morning. “The raw and honest energy in the room was humbling, and it helped to piece together all of the lessons and lectures the class had learned thus far. Before the course, I had learned something about the subject through the media and scholarly articles,” Lebrun observes, “but as the course progressed, I saw empathy and understanding fall across my fellow classmates as well. The change in energy and awareness was a key highlight I recall from the course.”

English 110 was a major factor in helping Lebrun find the career path she had been looking for. She decided to pursue a nursing degree, having heard McWhinney describe how nurses in the penitentiaries where he lived were cold, callous and borderline abusive. "I believe that if more people treated prisoners as people and less like numbers, reform within the penitentiaries would happen at a greater rate. I plan to be a part of the positive change in the system through the healthcare route," she says. (Lebrun is currently completing her Bachelor of Science in Nursing at the University of Alberta. She also plans to broaden her experience through volunteer visits to prisons in the Edmonton area).

Her advice to anyone considering taking the course is succinct: Take it. Even if English is not your strong suit or if you are generally indifferent about prison issues, the course content is interesting and thought-provoking. “You will have a better understanding of society, human nature, and the correctional and legal systems that you will carry with you and that will aid you in your day-to-day life.”

Demers has offered the course twice, and it will likely be offered again. He was delighted to walk into class every week to encounter so many open minds and people who cared so deeply about other people among his students. Returning to the course theme of unhelpful stereotypes, Demers notes that he doesn’t understand the “me generation” label often attached to young people when he sees students with a genuine desire to learn about lives that are entirely different from their own. “Young people understand, perhaps better than anyone, that people are connected and we need to learn to live together,” he says.

These days, Rik McWhinny does more reading than writing in his cozy apartment, which, with an ironic twist, he calls his cell. Crohn’s disease flare-ups sometimes make his life miserable but are minor compared to the 34 years living under constant lock and key that he describes in Force Majeure.

About the Author

Bill Armstrong is a Regina freelance writer and amateur photographer with a strong interest in Saskatchewan history.

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Outstanding Young Alumni Award

Thomas Benjoe is helping to shape one of the most important growth sectors in Saskatchewan’s economy – Indigenous business development. Benjoe was 17 when he read a magazine profile about the CEO of a successful First Nations investment company in Manitoba. “I want to be that guy,” he remembers thinking. “That company was building wealth for communities, and its success inspired me to want to work and support our communities in the same way.”

Benjoe is the president and CEO of File Hills Qu’Appelle Developments Ltd. (FHQ Developments), which was formed through a limited partnership agreement of the 11 First Nations communities that make up the File Hills Qu’Appelle Tribal Council in Treaty 4 territory.

FHQ Developments was established in 2010 to contribute to its partners’ long-term economic independence by investing in business ventures and supporting community economic development. FHQ Developments’ companies now generate over $35 million in annual revenues, with interests in construction, drilling and a hotel located beside the Living Sky Casino in Swift Current.

Benjoe graduated from First Nations University of Canada in 2011 with a Bachelor of Administration degree. While there, he served as vice-president of Finance for the First Nations University Student Association, and as president of the Business Students’ Society. He also helped develop an entrepreneurship camp for Indigenous youth who had no previous exposure to business or a university campus.

Benjoe had several job offers before he graduated, but choose to join the Aboriginal Banking unit with the Royal Bank of Canada. Besides achieving spectacular growth in his client portfolio, Benjoe has also worked to develop new products and services for First Nations and helped strengthen the bank’s Aboriginal strategy.

“ His humble leadership, passion and respectful manner in all aspects of his life inspire me. ”

He was on a path to a leadership role at RBC when members of the FHQ Developments Board of Directors approached him about becoming the company’s president and CEO. One of his first tasks was to improve the way the company structures new partnerships and investments.

Leanne Bellegarde, who has served as a director on the FHQ Developments board with Benjoe, heartily endorses the recognition. From the outset, she recognized him as one to watch. “He struck me from the first impression as a well-grounded, thoughtful leader from my home territory.”

Bellegarde, who is director of Diversity and Inclusion with the Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan, adds that she has benefited from having Benjoe as her millennial mentor. “ His humble leadership, passion and respectful manner in all aspects of his life inspire me. ”

Benjoe was recognized in the past with a Young Humanitarian award from the Canadian Red Cross and was a member of CBC’s Future 40.

Away from the office, Benjoe and his wife Dana have three children: Patience, Thomas Jr. and Evelyn. He does the beadwork for his family of Powwow dancers, keeping alive a tradition handed down from his great-grandmother. Patience is already a champion dancer. “It’s important that my family be part of Powwow and other traditional ways,” he says. “I’m encouraged to see other people – including recent immigrants – come out to a Powwow to learn about the Indigenous people of this territory and discover who their neighbors are.”

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People often mishear Joana Cook BA(Hons)’10 when she tells them she researches war studies. “They say to me ‘Oh, you do horse studies,’ ” Cook laughs at the end of a long work day at King’s College London where she is a post-doctoral research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR).

Cook’s PhD research examined women’s roles in counterterrorism post-9/11 with a focus on the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Yemen. But her curiosity about women in conflict was born long before a series of coordinated attacks carried out by al-Qaida terrorists killed nearly 3,000 people in the U.S. and injured more than 6,000 others.

At a young age, Cook often read stories of young women in conflicts like the Second World War or in the former Yugoslavia, and observed that women were often more adversely affected whenever violence was perpetuated. This realization was continuously apparent to her in topics ranging from gender-based and intimate partner violence, to the many incidences of missing and murdered Indigenous women within Canada. It bothered Cook that while women were the most impacted by conflict and violence, they weren’t always part of the solution.

As a political science student at the University of Regina, she sought to understand women’s agency in political violence, especially in parts of the world affected by conflict and war like Rwanda, Palestine and Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Her learning was always meaningful,” recalls Brenda Anderson, associate professor in Women’s and Gender Studies and Religious Studies at Luther College. “She certainly was concerned about how the theory plays out in real life.”

Anderson recalls Cook once convincing her to offer a class – a directed reading on women in Islam – she hadn’t planned on teaching that semester. “She had started to think about the role of women in crisis areas, and specifically in places where political extremism had taken hold,” says Anderson.

But it wasn’t enough for Cook just to zero in on societal beliefs that limited the participation of women in politics. She wanted to go to the source, to see for herself.

In the years since she graduated from the University of Regina, Cook has travelled the world extensively, always on a mission to investigate women’s roles in politics and security. It is through that careful interrogation that it became clear to her the fundamental changes 9/11 had initiated for women around the world.

Luther College Women’s and Gender Studies and Religious Studies associate professor Brenda Anderson Luther College Women’s and Gender Studies and Religious Studies associate professor Brenda Anderson

“It is no longer surprising if women play violent roles in a terrorist group – women have been suicide bombers in the Tamil Tigers, Boko Haram, and Islamist groups.”

She explains: “Prior to 9/11 – and I’m looking specifically at the U.S. here – there was a recognition that a lot of the development and governance work being done abroad was aimed at creating more stable societies. It wasn’t necessarily connected to counterterrorism.”

But after 9/11, Cook says, as demonstrated in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or countries like Yemen, programs that were previously focused on areas such as women’s education and skills development were reframed towards their contribution to counterterrorism.

“All of a sudden, if you wanted to access resources to support this or that program, to keep it relevant, you had to figure out all the different ways it could be seen to contribute to counterterrorism,” she says.

One result was that women became increasingly visible participants in relation to security, both positively and negatively. Because the war on terror had as its primary focus Iraq and Afghanistan, the gender-segregated cultural norms there also required that new roles for women be established within the U.S. military.

“You now needed female security personnel to engage with women in these populations, so that they could talk to women or search women,” says Cook, adding that even though they were restricted from combat roles, women often inadvertently found themselves on the front line.

Then women became more visible in terrorist groups. In 2015, increasing numbers of women from around the world were travelling to Syria to join the Islamic State group, including young women and families from Britain and Canada.

In an article Cook wrote that same year for British newspaper The Telegraph, she stated, “It is no longer surprising if women play violent roles in a terrorist group – women have been suicide bombers in the Tamil Tigers, Boko Haram, and Islamist groups in Chechnya, and have been militants in groups like the IRA and the Basque separatist movement.” She further noted, “Some have been forced or coerced into such roles, while others have been enthusiastic participants.”

Joana Cook moved to London in 2013 to complete her doctorate. She has provided analysis on terrorist issues for such media outlets as The Telegraph, The Washington Post, Time, The Huffington Post, Radio Free Europe, The National Post and on BBC World News, Sky News and CBC.

(Photo by Ivan Seifert)

Even then, Cook says, those cases of women carrying out terrorist attacks were often nationally contextual.

But that all changed with the emergence of the Islamic State group in 2014. Cook says they created roles for women in a way that was absolutely unprecedented for jihadist terrorist groups.

“A lot of that had to do with the fact that “ISIS” were framing themselves as a state-building project,” she explains. “They were putting out calls for professionals in terms of everything from teachers to nurses to doctors – any role you can think of in a state that would work specifically with other women; “Daesh” structured itself as a gender-segregated state.” (Cook refers to ISIS or Islamic State as “Daesh” because it’s a term that’s condescending to the jihadist organization, and one that the militants do not favour.)

According to Cook, many women were, and continue to be, lured from Western countries, including from Canada, to join “Daesh” in Iraq or Syria. Not surprisingly the story is different upon arrival.

“They are often immediately married off and encouraged to have kids. They may also be exposed to sexual violence and incredibly strict and conservative interpretations of how they should conduct themselves,” Cook said in an interview with Radio Free Europe, an organization that reports the news in countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established.

Though horror stories are now commonplace in the media, women (and men) had continued to leave their so-called first world countries to join “Daesh” until very recently. The motivations, Cook says, were as diverse as the women themselves. There’s the pull of “Daesh” promoting itself appealingly to women, providing public services, homes or husbands. And there are other factors at play, too. For some individuals, direct manifestations of Islamophobia, such as the recent shootings at a Québec mosque in Canada, make them believe that their faith is under attack – narratives “Daesh” often emphasize in their propaganda to recruit.

“However, if you see Muslims in Canada that are equal citizens with equal rights who have a stake in society the same as any other citizen, then to me that’s demonstrative of a healthy, well-functioning society that can help prevent that kind of propaganda from resonating,” she says. “We also have to be empathetic and understand how this kind of violence affects different members of our society and how we can work together to overcome those challenges or face them more proactively.”

According to Cook, many women were, and continue to be, lured from Western countries, including from Canada, to join “Daesh” in Iraq or Syria. Not surprisingly the story is different upon arrival.

Joana Cook poses at the Scotland Yard sign in front of the Curtis Green Building on the Victoria Embankment. Joana Cook poses at the Scotland Yard sign in front of the Curtis Green Building on the Victoria Embankment.

This June, when three men carried out a vehicle attack and went on a rampage near London Bridge, Cook was nearby in Borough Market where perpetrators stabbed people in and around pubs and restaurants. She was impressed with how quickly officers responded and how efficiently they disseminated helpful information through social media, and how citizens helped each other from the scene and came together the day after the attack.

“They could be the very ones driving those kinds of radical narratives in the home or in women’s groups,” Cook cautions. “It’s a fine balance and women have to be understood in complex terms.”

With increasing and diverse incidents of terrorism around the world, including often overlooked right-wing violence, Cook says it is now a matter of when the next attack will happen, not if. Countries like Canada, the U.K. and the U.S. are continuously assessing their responses so that they are prepared for the eventuality.

For Cook, this is all the more reason to include women in new ways of countering the rise of violent extremism. Women participate and contribute in many ways. Mothers may be well poised to detect when a family or community member is being radicalized or recruited by a terrorist organization. They can, she says, with proper guidance and assistance, help intervene and disrupt this process.

She warns, however, against a heavy reliance on stereotypical roles of women as peacemakers and caregivers, as that viewpoint can also limit the scope of what women are capable of, especially as violent actors themselves.

“We also have to be empathetic and understand how this kind of violence affects different members of our society and how we can work together to overcome those challenges or face them more proactively.”

“They could be the very ones driving those kinds of radical narratives in the home or in women’s groups,” Cook cautions. “It’s a fine balance and women have to be understood in complex terms.”

But even more strongly, she advises against the underutilization of the merits of women in all aspects of countering terrorism – women can play important roles in security forces, as community leaders, in counter and deradicalization work. As a researcher with ICSR at King’s College London and an affiliate with the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society (TSAS), Cook has lent her expert voice to the dialogue about women in counterterrorism in wide-ranging news media and discussion forums. She has commented on stories for Time, The Washington Post, BBC and CBC, to mention but a few. And she doesn’t take lightly the opportunity to share her views on these platforms. In fact, she wishes for more women and minorities to engage in conversations about such topics as terrorism and societal violence.

Joana Cook on BBC World News talking about women and children in ISIS. Joana Cook on BBC World News talking about women and children in ISIS.

“If you’re a woman, a Muslim, a First Nations youth or other group currently under-represented in security research, policy or practices in Canada or other countries, and you see a face resembling your own talking authoritatively about security, or shaping security policy, or playing a role in security practice, that’s very important,” Cook says.

In that way, eventually when she tells people that she studies war, their minds will not wander to horses.

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