Legends of Myself 107

Posted on June 26, 2017


107.  Vancouver, 1962: Juvie

Consider Teddy captured and sobbing in a Woodward’s office.  Consider Teddy now as a child precious to you, a child known to you and under your protection.  You can settle the matter in any way.  How would you settle it?  What would you do?

Consider Teddy in a car being taken to Juvenile Detention Home—Juvie—torn down in the 70s for being too Victorian and dungeonlike—being brought along without trial, without discussion, without contact with his father or family in any way—for a three week stay.

That was the state’s approach to my situation.  Was yours the same?  Is that how you would act with a child precious to you?

I’m going to guess, no, it wasn’t.  And I’m going to suggest why.

Because you’re not a damned fool.

Now I salted that question by making it personal.  And I did that to show how the state fails children or other people under their control.  They don’t treat them as someone precious.  On the contrary, they dehumanize them with labels, not Teddy but juvenile delinquent, not Teddy but thief, and respond as if Aesop had nothing to teach.

What was the lesson of the fable?  The Sun persuades a man to remove his cloak, but the West Wind, by attempting to tear it off, only causes the man to wrap his cloak more tightly around him. Yes, the lesson, persuasion is more powerful than force.  Because force provokes resistance.

Anybody who saw Teddy in that Woodward’s chair knew that his father had already persuaded him (“My father will disown me!  My father will disown me!”) and Teddy really, really wasn’t going to do that anymore.

Yet what was a more ridiculous use of force than, not only depriving a child of the direct effect of his parent’s disapproval at a time when it was still relevant, but jailing without trial a 12-year-old first offender for—it seems like something invented by Victor Hugo for dramatic effect—stealing peaches and Fizzies?

I went directly from Woodward’s—do not pass Go—to jail.  I don’t remember any intervening process.  I don’t remember any civil protections.  I don’t even remember the drive to the Juvenile Detention Home (although I must have been paying attention, because I was able to track its location down decades later.)  I merely remember a room with a window looking out at nothing, and a pane of wire-mesh in the door, and a bed that I lay down on within minutes of entering the room and within minutes was asleep on.  I was not to see my father or my sisters for three weeks.

I was now a captive of the cult of authority, and the cult of authority is stupid, brutal and racist.

Stupid?  Because children who go to jail rather than through alternative measures are seven times more likely to wind up in prison as adults.

Brutal?  Because confinement and brutality is what authoritarians offer rather than answers.

Racist?  Because that is one of the ways that the authoritarian psychology sorts cases as between extreme and more gentle methods.

White people, according to the psychology of [White] authoritarianism, are amenable to more reasonable social controls.  People of colour, according to this same psychology, can only be dealt with by force.

Thus at every stage of the justice system (which was then and is now overwhelmingly in the control of Whites) choices are made that effect people of colour differently.  A person of colour is more likely to be policed and over-policed, more likely to be arrested, more likely when arrested to be charged with multiple crimes, more likely when arrested to be remanded for custody.  They get less face time with their lawyers than Whites, and when tried are more likely to be sentenced to custody and with longer sentences, and once in custody are less likely to get parole.

So me in jail at 12 for a trivial shoplifting offence?  Exactly what you should expect in a cult of authority governed by Euro-Canadians.  If it was Aztecs running the jail, it would perhaps be outsider White children that the cult of authority would be jailing.

But it wasn’t Aztecs.

That being said, my encounter with the juvenile corrections system is not the most dismaying part of what happened to me.  Far from it.  Juvie was a holding facility attached directly to a Family Court, a place to put the delinquents before they were finally sorted.  It wasn’t the real thing.  It wasn’t a final destination, and people there didn’t have the same attitude as people who are taking custody of your fate.  We were locked up but only barely minded.  The real thing, the serious thing, the dangerous part of the system, would get a walk-on part later in this narrative, but it doesn’t appear here.

No, what I most remember about waking up in Juvie that second day was the breakfast they served us.  Eggs, bacon, sausages, toast, jam, milk, juice.  A huge improvement over pea soup mealtime after mealtime.  If I had eaten like that at home, I doubt I would have been so covetous of peaches.  And breakfast in Juvie was a celebration every morning.

And on top of prime grub, I had a houseful of jolly delinquents to hang out with all day.

No, I know Momma says not to hang out with the bad boys, but we’re dealing with stupid here.  Stupid gathers all the bad boys together, and forces them to hang out.  Stupid makes the bad boys your gang, and the forces of law and authority your enemy.

That’s why stupid should not be in charge of children.

Juvenile detention home 1934

The Juvenile Detention Centre used to be found in the neighbourhood north of Hastings, just west of the PNE.  I remember a certain granite institutional gloominess to the halls, absolutely appropriate to the early 20th century orphanage it was adapted from.  But in the games room I learned chess, in the yard I remember playing basketball, and as for social relationships with the staff, I remember them making a fuss over a Chinese kid for a reason I never learnt, and I remember thinking how much I wished someone would make a fuss over me.  But that is all.  Otherwise, they may as well have been invisible.

I have a solid memory of a teenage kid in there for slashing tires, a classic brooding loner who one day climbed the fence and dashed while everybody’s attention was on the other side of the basketball court.  He wasn’t caught during the time I was in Juvie, or, at least, if he was caught, he wasn’t brought back to us, because I never saw him again after I saw him passing over that tall wire fence.

As for me, I was beginning to be socialized to my role as outlaw.  Like Arlo on the Group W bench, I felt a social pressure to be a bit more outlaw than I actually was.  The old stone building we were housed in possessed a few odd corners, including one like an unused chimney with only three walls.  I found I could climb up between two of the walls like I’d seen people do in movies, and I used that to construct an identity as cat burglar and house-breaker.  Of course it was only boasting with a bit of make-believe, but it shows what the cultural expectations of my new companions were.

The structure of society in any jail is a clue to why jails don’t work.  Who do you respect, the gang you hang out with or the gang on the other side?  Who most influences your behaviour and actions?  Of course, it is the gang you hang out with, your class, your group, those connected to you, the people who are with you, not against you.

In jail, your fellow prisoners are your community, and your jailers are the enemy.  That’s among the reasons why adult prisons have an 80% failure rate, and kid prisons have a 700% failure rate, creating crime where it otherwise would not exist.

In fact, the failure of the system is so obvious and egregious that it would have probably been stopped long ago, even in a culture as authoritarian as Canada’s, if its victims were not the poor and people of colour.  However, authoritarian cultures are cultures of blame, not cultures that take responsibility for their actions.  And while the corrections systems fail, the culture can blame the poor and people of colour for their stubborn unwillingness to be reformed by those systems.  And so nobody notices the failure.  Racism not only finds inmates for the system, but it harbours social constructs that protect the system from criticism and change as well.

Those criminals just don’t learn, the cult of authority says.  Time for longer sentences.

Can’t nail that jelly to the wall?  Need more nails.

At the end of three weeks, my court date finally came.  I went through the iron door out of my stone jail, and was surprised to find myself in a pleasant carpeted hallway.  I had left the part of the building used by juvenile delinquents and was now in the part of the building used by officers of the court.  I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto.  The disconnect was slightly disorienting.

But then I was left alone in that hallway with my father and two sisters, my father smiling, talking about stealing apples himself off of trees as a kid, glad to see me, not at all angry as he might have been if three weeks hadn’t intervened.   And anyway, hadn’t I served my time?

I remember how good it felt in that hallway, and I wasn’t afraid.  I didn’t know what would happen when we went into that courtroom in a few minutes.  I didn’t know that our small visit in the hallway was our last stand as a family.  I had no notion of the scale of the disaster they had planned for me, for us.  It was just a few moments of home, then we went into a room, and I remember a woman talking to the judge, I don’t know what about.  And after awhile it was over.

I didn’t know it, but I had been stolen from my father.  I didn’t know it, but I had been stolen from my sisters.  I didn’t know it, but I had lost the home I’d known with them forever.  I didn’t know it, but I was once more traveling alone, but with no direction and no promise of home.  Ever.  I was a ward of the court.

I didn’t cry.  I didn’t shout.

That happened when I came back and found the ruins and memory of the Juvenile Detention Home more than half a century later.  I knew what it meant by then.  What had happened in the courtroom with that social worker from the Children’s Aid Society and that judge.  I knew what they had done to me.  I knew what they had done to us.  I knew what the result of their actions were, echoing through my life and my family for generations by then.  I knew and I shouted and I wept.

You killed my family, damn you.  Damn you.  Damn you.

An angry old Indigenous man storming pointlessly in the park.


It’s really like an ironic fairy tale.  Three devils go out to do mischief in the world.  The eldest puts his finger by his nose and blows out flame from the other nostril.  “See,” he said, I burn the family out of their home.  And see where they wander now without a home after I burned it down.”  The second eldest raised his stone fists and swung his iron tail, and cracked and broke the dam.  “I used flood,” said the second, “and see where the flood scatters them so they don’t reunite for a month.”  The third and youngest devil held up an indented tin plate and a handful of marbles, purchased for a dime.  “That’s enough to drive a family from their home,” he said.  He held up a paper bag of peaches and candy.  “That’s enough to scatter them forever.”

The other devils laughed.

Now fairy tales are fairy tales, and I don’t believe in devils any more than I believe that Madagascar is made of peanut brittle.  But I know stories.  And I know that you, never, ever underestimate that third devil.