Ethnocultural calendar inspires art and change

The 2023 ethnocultural wall calendar features colourful artwork and thought-provoking poems. Each month’s original art is created by a different incarcerated individual.

In September 2022, offenders across the country were invited to submit art or poetry for the upcoming calendar based on the anti-racism/anti-discrimination theme: Diversity includes me—includes you.

“The idea behind it was to give offenders a chance to share their artwork and their poetry, but also to share their voice and opinions about racism and their experiences,” said Suzanne Cuff, Acting Manager of the Ethnocultural and Social Development Services Branch of the Reintegration Services Division.

Stylized coloured sketch of a lion’s head
The lion, drawn by Wm V. Schneider, is featured for the month of August

The response was positive. They received 50 submissions of incredible works of art and poetry. A selection committee reviewed each one. Choosing only 13 pieces for the calendar was a challenge.

Suzanne said the social program officers and ethnocultural site coordinators were helpful in spreading the word in their institutions to encourage offenders to share their talent. They put up posters and promoted it as an opportunity for offenders to voice their thoughts about racism and discrimination through their artwork and words.

Science behind benefits of art

Creating art—drawing, painting, writing, and music—has proven beneficial for incarcerated individuals.Footnote 1 Scientific research supports this.

The right brain controls our visual and intuitive side—our creative side. It is responsible for our emotions, dreams, music, art, self-image, self-discipline, and the ability to work with others.

Developing the right brain, through practice, improves a person’s critical thinking skills and helps them manage emotions, which boosts self-esteem. Participating in artistic events gives offenders a sense of purpose and the belief that they can make a positive change in their lives.

Inmate-artists are also more likely to pursue other educational and vocational programs than those without this experience. This is particularly true for those who grew up in challenging environments, which includes Indigenous, Black, and other racialized Canadians.

Knowing this, the Reintegration Services Division thought a call out for the calendar would promote the benefits of being creative.

“We hope that this encourages offenders to take up art or artistic expression,” said Bill Rasmus, Director of the Reintegration Services Division. “The other thing that I think is really interesting about this is the encouragement for inmates to focus their artistic endeavors around the suggested theme.”

Bill noted that the 2022 calendar theme, This is Me… Beyond the Surface, was an opportunity for the inmate artists to visualize what that meant for them. It was the same for this year’s calendar, with Diversity includes me—includes you.

A large pair of Lips with the words ‘Don’t Silence Me’ written on them
January’s art of a image of a pair of lips beside the poem, Don’t Silence Me, were created by Djamila Panzo

“I allowed myself to be vulnerable and really dug deep into my thoughts and was able to express myself authentically,” said Djamila Panzo whose poem Don’t Silence Me was chosen for January. “I appreciate the opportunity to have been given the space to speak my truth, as well as shed light and educate CSC on the various struggles minorities face systematically, and I truly hope that my words transcend.”

A way to be visible

The calendar was a way for offenders to be visible to staff and the community. Being seen and heard through their artistic expression, affirms their humanity. This helps incarcerated individuals demonstrate to themselves and to the public that they should not be defined solely by the act that brought them to prison. They are people capable of change and who want to improve themselves.

Allen Chow, whose poem and sketch were chosen for July, said he submitted his creation “in the spirit of sharing ideas.” His art was inspired by a video of two boys of different racial backgrounds, running toward each other with open arms and embracing.

“For me, this scene is a poignant affirmation of my believe that racism/discrimination is a behaviour that is ‘nurtured’ rather than ‘natured.’ That is to say, it is something we learn from the outside,” Allen said. “I believe in the inherent purity and goodness of human nature, which quite often, and sadly, gets distorted through ideology and judgement.”

Black and white sketch of two boys, one Black and the other Caucasian, running toward each other with arms outstretched.
July’s art incorporated Allen Chow’s poem, A Wish, and his drawing of two little boys running toward each other

The calendar is also unique in that it includes multicultural observances and important days not noted on most calendars.

Two thousand 2023 calendars were printed through CORCAN and given to every artist who contributed. The calendars were also delivered to every institution, parole office, regional and national headquarters, as well as to regional and national Ethnocultural Advisory Committee members. It is also posted on CSC’s Intranet site, so employees can download each month and display it on their wall to admire the art while at work or at home.

For the artists whose work was highlighted in the calendar, it was a special recognition.

“When I was notified that my poetry was chosen for the calendar, I was extremely proud of myself and could not wait to share the news with my family,” said Djamila.

Fostering artistic practice and self-expression is an important way to uphold incarcerated individual’s fundamental human rights of dignity and humanity. Because of positive reactions from artists like Allen and Djamila, and from staff, CSC hopes more inmate-artists will be inspired to submit their works for the 2024 calendar.

CSC also hopes that these efforts will further contribute to its ongoing commitment to anti-racism, diversity, equity, and inclusion. Given the disproportionate representation of Indigenous, Black, and other racialized Canadians in the Canadian prison system, CSC is working to create an anti-racist organization that is more inclusive, diverse and equitable for those in our care and custody.

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