Commentary  No Borders, No Prisons

New Laval Migrant “Detention Centre” Is A Prison

content warning: mention of suicide, PTSD, colonial violence, sexual assault, death

On September 5, over 50 activists gathered at the Lemay architecture firm offices to protest the construction of the new Laval migrant prison. In 2017, Lemay obtained a five million dollar federal contract to design the plans for the facility and activists have been protesting it since. The project was announced in August 2016 by the Liberal government; Public Security Minister Ralph Goodale explained that $138 million dollars would be invested to build two new facilities, one in British Columbia and one in Quebec. While the Trudeau government was elected for supposedly having a welcoming immigration policy, it has clearly not lived up to its campaign promises. Currently, there are three migrant “detention centres” in Canada: one in Laval, one in Toronto, and one in Vancouver, administered by the Canada Border Service Agency. Migrants are also imprisoned in regular and maximum-security prisons across the country. From April 2014 to March 2015, 6,768 immigrants were detained, 2,366 of whom were released and 3,325 deported from Canada.

The announcement was justified by a need to create a “fairer and more humane immigration detention system.” The inhumane conditions that exist within those migrant prisons were not addressed, neither were the multiple deaths and illegal solitary confinement that have repeatedly occurred in the existing prisons. The Laval project costs an astronomical $56 million, and will be able to imprison 133 migrants, with a maximum capacity of 158 when extra overflow cots are added. This is an extension of the current holding facility that exists in Laval, which can hold 144 migrants. The prison is planned to open in 2021 and is located at 600 Montée Saint-François, a kilometer away from the current provincial detention facility. The rhetoric of the Liberal government has been to present this prison as a positive improvement compared to the current one, which was built in the 1950s, rather than as the massive investment in the further policing and criminalizing of migrants and racialized people in Canada.

Detaining immigrants in prison for indefinite periods of time is an abhorrent practice that takes place all too often in Canada.

In the plans designed by Lemay, which were revealed in a report released by the Canadian Border Service Agency (CBSA) in 2017, the facility is described as having a “warm and homey feeling.” The report describes a facility which follows sustainability standards, has a LEED certification and is environmentally friendly; it further describes “children playing areas” which will “only be surrounded by a one-metre fence similar to a daycare facility.” This new migrant prison, which subjects migrants and asylum seekers to inhumane conditions, will be detaining children and separating families, all while presenting it in a palatable manner. The emphasis on sustainability is essentially greenwashing; a prison remains a prison, no matter how environmentally friendly it is. It is part of a larger movement of rebranding of migrant prisons as “reformed” and aesthetically attractive, in order to conceal their harmful nature.

The new “detention centres,” regardless of how the government attempts to masquerade them as humane, are simply a continuation of racial profiling in law enforcement, xenophobia, and the practice of detaining undocumented immigrants indefinitely; that is, a prison. The new facility would be located next to three existing prison complexes, where immigrants are already being detained without trial. In 2018, over 1,500 immigrants were detained in maximum-security provincial prisons, typically on the grounds that they were “unlikely to appear for their immigration hearing.” Detaining immigrants in prison for indefinite periods of time is an abhorrent practice that takes place all too often in Canada; many detainees are held for a few weeks, but sometimes their cases can drag on for several months or years. For example, Kashif Ali, a West African man, spent seven years in prison, sometimes in solitary confinement, without a release date, because the government could not deport him. Amy Darwish, an organizer with Solidarity Across Borders, condemns the project: “For the people on the inside, it doesn’t matter if there are leaves on the window, if you’re going to be separated from the people that you care about,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if the building is more energy efficient if you’re going to be deported back to a situation of danger. At the end of the day, this is a facility that’s aimed to facilitate deporting people.”

The emphasis on sustainability is essentially greenwashing; a prison remains a prison, no matter how environmentally friendly it is. It is part of a larger movement of rebranding of migrant prisons as “reformed” and aesthetically attractive, in order to conceal their harmful nature.

Sylvie Freeman, a prison abolitionist in Montreal, argues that the design of the new facility reflects an attempt at prison reform, which only strengthens the prison-industrial complex. “Often reformers are potentially well-intentioned, but every time reforms actually go through, they get co-opted. It just seems like prison reform always leads to an extension of the prison-industrial complex.” Carmelo Monge, an activist who was formerly detained in the Surveillance Centre for Immigration (CSI), argues, “the government claims that building ‘better’ prisons for ‘suspect’ immigrants is the answer, but the real problem is that we are treated like criminals; firstly by the very fact of being arrested. This is really what affects us. Why are they stopping us? Why are we suspicious in the eyes of the state? It is almost always our skin colour, our apparent poverty, and our accent that betray us. It is almost always on the basis of our image that we are stopped in the street. Being undocumented is not a pleasure. It’s hard. You need support, not to be arrested or imprisoned. Although the cage is golden, it remains a prison.”

Since the announcement, multiple protests and direct actions have been organized by activists, targeting mainly the complicit private contractors who have rendered the project possible. In May 2018, crickets were released in the Lemay offices to protest its designing of the plan. While the company claims that to be “socially responsible,” with “human interests” at heart in every project, their complicity in the inhumane detention of migrants and asylum seekers suggests otherwise. In March 2019, the windows of the sales office of a condo tower designed by Lemay in Montreal were smashed, and another condo development in the city was “redecorated” with spray paint by activists.

“The government claims that building ‘better’ prisons for ‘suspect’ immigrants is the answer, but the real problem is that we are treated like criminals.” — Carmelo Monge

In February 2019, the excavation company Loiselle’s offices in Salaberry-de-Valleyfield were covered in white paint and tagged with “No to the Migrant Prison.” The company was given the contract for decontaminating the future’s facility site before the construction started. On February 17, the first rally was organized by the organization Ni Frontières, Ni Prisons (No Borders, No Prisons); over 100 people marched from Saint-Henri metro to the Lemay offices. Three days later, another protest was organized, this time at the current CSI in Laval.

On May 1, International Labour Day, the annual anti-capitalist demonstration in Montreal chose to focus on the new migrant prison. The Convergence des Luttes Anti-Capitalistes in Montreal, who were part of the march, said on their website that they were targeting the prison and Lemay to oppose “capitalist and racist forces [who] build the walls of a Canada and USA fortress, making work and life conditions more and more dangerous and precarious for migrants.” According to The Link, over 200 protesters threw rocks and launched projectiles at Lemay’s Le Phoenix head office. Adeel Hayat from Solidarity Across Borders explained at the protest that “after crossing that fucking border about 60km South of here, people seeking asylum after months or years of homelessness are put in Canadian prisons, conveniently renamed ‘detention centres,’ to give them a more humane appearance.”

In June 2019, two acts of protest were carried out by activists, targeting cars belonging to Englobe enterprise and Lemay. Englobe is one of Canada’s largest firms, specializing in environmental engineering. It carried out the sanitation assessment for the future site of the prison; in response, one of the company’s cars was smashed, its tires slashed and tagged with the “No Migrant Prison” slogan. Activists on the Montreal Counter-Information website claimed responsibility for the act as an “easy and effective way of protesting” the company’s complicity in the project. On June 11, Lemay’s Vice-President André Cardinal’s BMW was torched in the city west end.

While [Lemay]  claims that to be “socially responsible,” with “human interests” at heart in every project, their complicity in the inhumane detention of migrants and asylum seekers suggests otherwise.

The contractor, who was given the $50 million federal contract for the construction of the prison by CBSA, was revealed in July 2019, sparking further protests over the summer. The company, Tisseur Inc., a construction company based in Val David, attempts to present itself as a socially responsible company, highlighting environmentally conscious projects on their website, while being complicit in the violent displacement and imprisonment of migrants in Canada. A family-friendly, information-picket protest was organized at their offices in August, where Amy Darwish from Solidarity Across Borders stated that “by agreeing to work on this project, Tisseur is profiting from the imprisonment of migrants and refugees” and that the goal of protest was to “talk to their workers about why there is widespread opposition to this project and why it is also an anti-worker project.”

These different acts of civil disobedience have all had a similar goal of both raising awareness around the new prison and actively opposing it. Activists have taken what they see as necessary steps to oppose a violent, inhumane facility, regardless of consequences. Direct action, especially now that the construction has effectively started despite widespread opposition, should be supported. These groups, which are often painted as “anarchists” or “extremists” by the mainstream media, have taken a strong antiprison stance, and we recognize the necessity of active opposition to such state violence.

The new migrant prison will replace the existing CSI in Laval. The government has attempted to justify the project by claiming that the new “detention centre” will have better ventilation, a playground for detained children, a TV room, better beds, and the separation of immigrants from prisoners. The government also claims that this will avoid criminalizing detained immigrants and respect their rights. However, this does not refute the fact that, regardless of living conditions, the very practice of targeting, arresting, and detaining immigrants is racist, dehumanizing, and detrimental to the well-being of migrants and their families. Immigration officers in plain clothes have allegedly been randomly conducting ID checks on the street in Toronto, though the CBSA has denied conducting street checks. Given the police and immigration services’ record of racial profiling, racialized immigrants are more likely to be targeted and arrested.

These groups, which are often painted as “anarchists” or “extremists” by the mainstream media, have taken a strong antiprison stance, and we recognize the necessity of active opposition to such state violence.

Moreover, the administration of these prisons by the CBSA is inherently harmful to migrants. The CBSA, while claiming not to be a prison force, adopted a new uniform for officers working with detained immigrants that includes highly defensive and militarized gear, such as bulletproof vests, batons, pepper spray, and handcuffs, which further contributes to the dehumanization and treatment of detainees as criminals despite not having committed a crime. The CBSA is also a body that is subject to little to no independent oversight. CBC News also reported in February that around 1,200 allegations of CBSA staff misconduct were made between January 2016 and the middle of 2018, including alleged offences of sexual assault, criminal association, and harassment.

Moreover, detained migrants are not told where their family members are being held or how to contact them, and children separated from their loved ones can experience psychological distress, sometimes on top of existing trauma. Some formerly detained immigrants, especially children and women who were separated from their families, experience anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and post-traumatic stress disorder as a consequence of their detainment. “Even short periods of detention are highly traumatic and detrimental to migrants’ health,” says Marlihan Lopez, Vice President of the Quebec’s Women Federation. “We denounce the government’s investment in infrastructure that upholds and reproduces violence against migrants.”

Each of these unnecessary deaths at the hands of the Canadian government have been handled with secrecy, leaving families without any information about what happened.

While most Canadians have called on the government to take a strong stance against the detainment of children in the United States at the hands of ICE following massive coverage of the horrifying practice, few are aware that Canada also detains children in so-called immigration centres. In 2018, over 160 children were detained in one of the three migrant prisons. While the government has stated that they will stop the practice of detaining children, the incorporation of a playground in the new migrant prison in Laval suggests otherwise. In November 2017, the government issued a “National Directive for the Detention or Housing of Minors,” which stated that it will reduce and eventually stop the practice of detaining children. However, the Candian Council for Refugees states that it is not enough, and calls for the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act to be amended to “end the detention of children, reserve children’s right to family unity by not detaining accompanying parents.” Further, the use of child removal, especially in racialized communities, has historically been a violent colonial tool of Canadian settler nation-building. The Union of BC Chiefs released an open letter to Trump and Trudeau condemning the separation of immigrant children from their parents. They called the action a violation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, and stated that the detainment of children and separation of families is reminiscent of the policies of Indian residential schools in Canada and the US.

Furthermore, beyond the inhumane conditions and abuse happening within these prisons, at least 16 people have died at the hands of the CBSA since 2000. These deaths include the death of a 50-year-old woman at a maximum security prison in 2017; the death of Bolante Idowu Alo, who died in 2018 after an “altercation” with CBSA guards escorting him on a plane to be deported to Nigeria; the death of 39-year-old Francisco Javier Romero Astorga while in custody of the CBSA, whose family was only informed weeks later; the death of a 24-year-old man died in CBSA custody in Alberta; the deaths of Jan Szamko, 31, from Czech Republic; the death of Melkioro Gahungu, 64, from Burundi; the death of Abdurahman Hassan, 39, from Somalia; the death of Lucia Vega Jimenez, 42, from Mexico; and more whose names have not been released to the public. Each of these unnecessary deaths at the hands of the Canadian government have been handled with secrecy, leaving families without any information about what happened. Each of these must be condemned as state violence enacted against migrants, in migrant prisons that the government are now trying to rebrand as environmentally friendly, daycare-like centres.

The Union of BC Chiefs released an open letter to Trump and Trudeau condemning the separation of immigrant children from their parents […] and stated that the detainment of children and separation of families is reminiscent of the policies of Indian residential schools in Canada and the US.

The migrant “detention centre” in Laval is yet another prison making up the prison-industrial complex in Canada. First, Canada supports sanctions and egregious policies that destabilize countries and displace populations, only to detain those who are forced to migrate to Canada. These actions are predicated on racist and xenophobic ideologies that permeate every level of government in Canada. It is important to recognize that Canada’s immigration policies and practices are not removed from global systems of capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism. The outsourcing of labour, as well as Canadian mining projects in Latin America, exacerbate social inequality and political instability in the Global South. Moreover, Canada is complicit in US-led sanctions and imperialist interventions in Latin America and the Middle East, such as those in Cuba and Venezuela. Canada’s imperialist projects and colonial resource extraction abroad create unstable conditions in the Global South that displace people, who then migrate to Europe, the U.S., and Canada to seek asylum. Immigrants and their children are then criminalized by the state for not having the “proper” documentation and are faced with the threat of being deported.

Canada supports sanctions and egregious policies that destabilize countries and displace populations, only to detain those who are forced to migrate to Canada.

It is essential that we work towards abolishing all prisons, which includes refusing to allow new ones to be built. We must mobilize to stop the construction of the Laval migrant prison, as it will allow for the continued criminalization of racialized people. Many organizations have already begun mobilizing to try and halt construction, including the organization Solidarity Across Borders, which has been organizing weekly protests. They are also calling for a Day of Action on October 3, against Canada’s detention of migrants. We urge you to join these protests, while also keeping in mind the companies that are complicit in the construction of this prison. It is imperative that we put pressure on these companies through boycotts and public awareness, in order to help stop the migrant prison from being built.