Concerning our late elder...
Harriet Nahanee’s spirit lives on today. However, she passed into the spirit world at the age of 72 after she was abused in a Canadian prison system after she sacrificed her life to protect her land and sacred rights to it. This is her story through our eyes.
Harriet was a Pacheedaht grandmother, Elder, and an Indigenous Warrior who had married into the Skwxwu7mesh (Squamish) Nation. She was one of the only Indigenous protesters protecting the Eagle Ridge Bluff site on Coast Salish Territory where people stayed to protect the site that was slated to be destroyed to expand the Sea to Sky Highway for the 2010 Olympics.
For asserting her Indigenous rights as an Indian under the Canadian Constitution and for refusing to apologize for her blockade action, on January 24th, 2007, despite her frail health, Harriet was sentenced to fourteen days in the Surrey Pretrial Centre, a men's prison and a notorious hell-hole for women. Lawyers are now looking into how she was treated at the prison and why she became sick. Many people have talked about how she was not given blankets, proper medical treatment, and was further subjected to racist abuse by prison staff and inmates.
In a letter to Justice Brenda Brown, prior to the sentencing of Ms. Nahanee, Betty Krawcyzk urged compassion: "I am very worried about Mrs. Harriet Nahanee. Mrs. Nahanee is not well. She has asthma and is suffering the after effects of a recent bout of flu that has left her very weak."
Despite the pleads of Krawcyzk, Madame Justice Brenda Brown sentenced Mrs. Nahanee, aged 72, to fourteen days incarceration for contempt of court in disobeying the Eagle Ridge Bluff injunction. While in jail, under unacceptable conditions at Surrey Pre-Trial Centre, where she was held in a cell with tens of other inmates and subject to racist treatment, Harriet Nahanee contracted pneumonia. She was hospitalized within a week of her release from custody and passed away within a week.
Indigenous activists and non-Indigenous concerned people are demanding a public inquiry into Harriet Nahanee’s death as a direct result of her incarceration. These are the questions we want answered:
- Why was Indigenous Elder Harriet Nahanee sent to jail despite clear direction from the Supreme Court of Canada that imprisonment should be the last remedy for Indigenous persons?
- Why did Madame Justice Brown fail to take Mrs. Nahanee’s frail health into consideration?
- Why did Madame Justice Brown refuse to hear Mrs. Nahanee’s Indigenous sovereignty defence?
- Why was Mrs. Nahanee incarcerated at Surrey Pre-Trial Centre, under such inappropriate conditions?
The Crown and the courts also have to answer the underlying question: why are 2 respected elders and women over seventy years of age being prosecuted for protecting the environment and sent to jail for defending the land?
There can be no justification for the incarceration and resulting death of esteemed Indigenous Elder, Harriet Nahanee, a strong voice for her people at a time when many are afraid to speak out in the light of the criminalization of dissent.
Harriet Nahanee was a part of many struggles. Firstly, for the recognition of Indigenous land rights and protecting the environment, and also fighting against discrimination, marginalization and institutionalization of Indigenous people in the cities, especially Indigenous women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. She was a vital member of so many movements and activist communities, a role model for many and will be deeply missed. The loss is aggravated by the fact that she passed away as a direct result of her incarceration, starting January 24, 2007, in Surrey Pre-Trial where she contracted pneumonia. A service was held at the Squamish Recreation Centre on February 28 with hundreds of people in attendance mourning the passing of their mother, grand-mother, great-grandmother, fellow activist, Warrior, Elder, friend and role-model.
Photo: Christopher Grabowski