Parallel containments: Kate Motluk, Containment & COVID-19 in the Settler State: Indigenous Incarceration and Immigration Detention in Canada and Australia, MA dissertation, Wilfrid Laurier University, 2021


Abstract: Canada and Australia each have long histories of containing Indigenous peoples and migrants. The overincarceration of Indigenous peoples continues to worsen in both countries, despite targeted reforms. Migrant detention is on the rise worldwide, with Canada and Australia’s systems understood as among the harshest. This thesis explores why Canada and Australia contain these populations by examining these practices through the lens of contemporary settler colonialism. Like most everything, containment by states has undergone rapid changes as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This study aims to understand how COVID-19 impacted those within carceral institutions, and contextualize that treatment within the same settler colonial logics and histories that animate their containment in the first place. My methodology consists of a literature review and a comparative study of Canada and Australia’s responses to COVID-19 in carceral institutions. The literature review summarizes theories of settler colonialism and the settler state, and traces Canada and Australia’s containment practices through to the contemporary overincarceration of Indigenous peoples and detention of migrants. My comparative study utilized publicly available data, media sources, and literature to map the policy responses to COVID-19 in carceral spaces, and interpret the implications of those policies. This data was sourced from published statics from the Canadian and Australian government and affiliated institutions, independent reports from domestic and international bodies, and works published by independent researchers and journalists. This thesis concludes that people held in carceral institutions in both Canada and Australia were severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic beyond the negative impacts felt by the general public. In Australia, while cases of COVID-19 remained low, the rights of those in prisons and immigration detention centres were substantially eroded as a result of the pandemic, and for some even basic sustenance and medical needs were interrupted. In Canada, COVID-19 was rampant in carceral facilities, with higher case counts per 1,000 people among those contained in comparison with the general Canadian population. While finalizing this thesis, COVID-19 remains an active threat to both countries and their incarcerated populations, particularly in the wake of the Delta variant. From this study, I find that contemporary settler colonial logics work to keep Indigenous peoples and migrants incarcerated and renders them as ‘less grievable’; a framing which ultimately exposed those contained to both a greater risk of infection from the virus, but also maltreatment in the name of public health. Crucially, this understanding of those within carceral facilities as less grievable rendered them less worthy of protection. This apprehension of these lives as less grievable has further allowed Canada and Australia to maintain their domestic and international identity as progressive, liberal democracies, while enforcing decidedly antiprogressive policies within carceral institutions. In spite of this, this study found isolated instances of decarceration, which may one day serve as important precedent on the road to abolition.

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