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Poetry against colonialism: El Jones reads writings on inequities, slavery at UTSC library

How polite is Canada, really?
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The poet and activist is UTSC’s writer in residence.
The poet and activist is UTSC’s writer in residence.

On February 1, poet, activist, and journalist El Jones gave a reading at an event hosted by the UTSC Library. Students had the opportunity to listen to some of her moving pieces, which discuss the hardships of marginalized communities in prison and the long-lasting effects of colonialism in Canada.

Jones has performed all over Canada and is a contributor at the Huffington Post. She is UTSC’s current writer in residence and contributes to student events and classes. She was named Halifax Poet Laureate from 2013–2015 and currently hosts the Black Power radio show on CKDUF-FM. 

Her book, Live from the Afrikan Resistance! is a collection of poetry about the struggle in the African Nova Scotia community. 

She was also appointed to the Halifax police board to help define the process of defunding the police. She has done significant work on prison justice with east coast prisons and Elizbeth Fry Societies. She has also handled a national campaign that successfully prevented the deportation of refugee Abdoul Abdi. 

“Canada is so Polite” 

In this piece, Jones debunks Canadians’ well-known notion of being “too polite.” She talks about the history of violence against Indigenous peoples and different minoritized groups, which Canada seems to ignore when discussing ‘politeness.’ Jones unmutes the silence surrounding the conversation of colonialism and its persisting effects. 

“And let’s not mention the Shelburne race riots, or cross burnings, or Africville or 2,000 missing and murdered Indigenous women, but there’s no genocide… It’s rude to raise your voice in Canada. So let’s just smile.”

“White Jurors”

In the following piece, Jones analyzes and emphasizes how marginalized community groups such as Indigenous and Black peoples are mistreated in Canada by officers, by court systems, and in prisons. 

“The life of Colton Boushie, worth less than the alleged theft of an ATV? / what was he doing was all day debated on TV / shots to the head while he was lying there asleep / and so the Indigenous youth was the only one found guilty. / And there were comments that he deserved in the secret Facebook group for the RCMP and a group of Saskatchewan farmers. / Of course, they all agreed.”

“Dear Benedict” 

Through this poem, Jones asks for reparations from the actor Benedict Cumberbatch. Her grandmother, a Cumberbatch from Barbados, was enslaved by the Cumberbatch family. 

“Oh, how can that be when she didn’t look Scottish, well you see that ‘ish’ went down like this. My great, great, great, great, great grandmother was snatched from Africa and bought by your great, great, great, great, great grandfather to cut the sugar cane, and he gave her his name.”

Reflecting on colonialism in Canada

El Jones’ pieces were poignant and made me reflect on how Canada has only begun to acknowledge the past colonialist laws and policies that still affect Indigenous peoples today. It was only recently, in 2019, that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau launched the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, acknowledging the deaths and disappearances as “a race-based genocide.” 

However, colonial sentiments still persist, even with these acknowledgments. Jones herself has been booed off stage while performing live. Structural inequities also remain: in 2020, 30 per cent of Canadian prison inmates were Indigenous, even though they made up only five per cent of the Canadian population. 

The issues that Jones discusses remain as relevant as ever. That we acknowledge our past with our words — but not with our actions — shows just how impolite Canada really is.