Life Teachers: Claire Culhane and Ruth Morris

In the early 1990’s I had the opportunity to meet, do activist work with and enjoy the friendship of two women who each in their own very different ways demonstrated the truth that an individual, and particularly an individual woman, can bring about change in the world. In addition to many other causes, both, with courage and determination took on the mantle of “prison abolition” as their ideal and spent decades working towards it. While “prison abolition” has not come about in Canada, the changes in the lives of the incarcerated, innocents behind bars, the workers in the prison and justice systems and the victims of crime as well, have benefited from the tireless work of these women.

Although Claire and Ruth had very differing backgrounds, approaches and beliefs there was much they had in common. Having visited each of them in their homes upon occasion one thing that struck me immediately was the simplicity of the material lifestyle each of them had. Unassuming homes, few decorations, simple furniture but lots of books. The books in both cases ranged from politics, sociology, law, biography to poetry, philosophy and religion. Not too much fiction, which did not surprise me as neither of them were the escapist type.

On a broader scale the commonalities included a particular view of life which encompassed a fundamental belief in the ultimate “goodness” of humanity. Despite encountering horrific situations the reason to continue working for change was because of this foundation of belief. This ties in with a belief in a basic sense of justice that could heal rather than avenge. Extending compassion particularly to those whom society often felt weren’t “worthy” of it was another shared view. As well the idea that all of humanity has a common ground upon which we stand was shared. And while we may have a great deal of difficulty realizing that common ground, through all our ideologies and factions, it is there for those willing to not only look but see.

Both of these women received an Order of Canada award, the country’s highest civilian honor in recognition of their life’s work. Claire received it in 1995 and Ruth received it in 2001.

Claire Culhane 1918-1996

claire_culhane_photo

(photo source prisonjustice.ca)

Clair Culhane has been described as a prisoners’ rights activist, author, freedom fighter and rebel. Prisoners gave her the nickname “One Woman Army”, which became the title of a biography about her and that certainly describes the Claire I came to know.

Some few people seem born to a life of activism. Throughout her life Claire worked for change and equality for all.  She was born in 1918, as World War 1 was in it’s final throes. The milieu of global political tumult that followed no doubt influenced her childhood greatly.  As a teenager she became aware of women’s struggles to get the vote in many parts of the world. When she attempted to get training as a nurse in Montreal Canada at the time she was initially denied because she was a Jew. She did win her training and obtained a nursing job after a struggle.

She worked for the anti-fascist movement during the Spanish Civil War which took place between 1936-1939. From there she became knowledgeable about the Communist movement, married (and later divorced) a party worker and worked on labor issues and against McCarthyism throughout the 1940’s and 50’s.

In the 1960’s she fought for abortion rights, and against nuclear testing and the Vietnam War. She spent 6 months in Vietnam as a nurse in a tuberculosis hospital and from there was able to assess the situation first hand and in particular Canada’s duplicitous role there.

She then became involved with prisoners’ rights and worked tirelessly to improve conditions in prisons not only for inmates but also for prison workers and to consider victims in a more global and compassionate view of the justice system.

I very much like the picture of her above. She would look you straight in the eyes when she talked. She was totally present with you at every moment. No turning away.

She was passionate, occasionally strident and utterly fearless.  And deeply deeply compassionate and caring. Her daughter Dara Culhane Speck continues activist work. She is a professor of social sciences at the University of British Columbia and is the award winning author of numerous publications.

A few quotes by Claire:

If you believe in something, you live that life-style.

Somewhere in the human organism there is an ear that will listen, a mind that will open, a heartbeat that will quicken, and a voice that will clamour for the conversation of the border which exalts ‘business as usual’ over one which honours concerns for others. And, when enough people realize this and organize themselves to act upon their convictions, it will change. -quoted in Rowley link below

Selected links related to Claire Culhane:

“Bringing the Outside World In”: Canadian Prisoner’s Correspondence with Claire Culhane, Activist and Penal Abolitionist, 1976-1996 is a Master’s Thesis done in 2002 by Alison Rowley which documents much of Claire’s work and it’s significance

CLAIRE CULHANE – Prison Abolitionist a biographical piece about Claire’s work relating to prisons and prisoners from the prisonjustice.ca network

A biographical piece on Claire Culhane from McMaster University which also holds some of her papers.

One Woman Army: The Life of Claire Culhane A biography of Claire was written by Mick Lowe.

Claire Culhane: Canadian Peace Activist and Humanitarian From McMaster University’s Peace and War in the 20th Century website, this biographical piece on Claire’s activist work during the Vietnam War.

Farewell to A Friend -a memorial tribute to Claire in the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons in 1997

CLAIRE CULHANE 1918-1996—AN INVENTORY OF HER PRISONER’S RIGHTS GROUP COLLECTION is a listing of her papers, letters, videos, interviews etc. up until 1990 that have been preserved at the University of British Columbia library. As a list it is over 100 pages and the pages of the material itself numbers in the tens of thousands. Several other universities in Canada have similarly large collections of her work. Take a look at the contents summary of the list just to see for how many years and for how many causes, issues and individuals this extraordinary woman worked.[I’ve abbreviated it slightly]

I PERSONAL
II WOMEN
III CANADIAN AFFAIRS
IV BC AFFAIRS
V QUEBEC AFFAIRS
VI VIETNAM AFFAIRS
VII INDOCHINA AFFAIRS
VIII TEACHING ASSIGNMENTS
IX ABORIGINAL PEOPLE
PRISONS (Misc)
PRISONERS’ LETTERS (to/from CC vs J . Stewart
3 CPS vs . CC (BCP ’76/’77 )
4 WRIT OF MANDAMUS (Oak )
5 SUBCOMMITTEE on CPS ‘7 7
CSC ’87/’88
6WOMEN IN PRISON
7 PRISONERS’ RIGHTS GROUP (PRG )
8 CANADIAN GOVERNMEN T
a) Sol . Gen .
b) Min . Justice
c) Corr . Investigator
d) Senate
e) Auditor-General
f) N P B
g) Commissioner CSC
9 B .C . GOVERNMENT
a) Other Provincial Govts .
10 YOUNG PEOPLE
11 B .C . PEN HOSTAGE ‘7 6
12 CPS (changed to CSC)
a) BC Pen f) Edmonton
b) Archambault g) Warkworth
c) Kent h) Matsqui
-d) Dorchester i) Bowden
e) Sask . Pen
13 INSTEAD OF PRISONS (TV )
14 BC CORRECTION S
a) Parole Services
b) Other Provinces
15 PRISONERS’ AFFAIRS
Aboriginal Prisoners
Visitors Cttee
16 PRISONER SUPPORT
17 AUG . 10 PRISON JUSTICE
18 PRISON MORATORIUM
19 PETITION RE V & C
20 BARRED FROM PRISON ’79
a) CHASSEE DE PRISON 1 81
b) STILL BARRED FROM PRISON ’85
c) NO LONGER BARRED FROM PRISON ’90
d) NO LONGER BARRED FROM PRISON “( )
(FRENCH TRANSLATION )
21 CC vs Harrison Oakalla ‘7 9
a) BC Atty Gen ‘8 7
b) CSC-Pac . Region ‘8 8
22 CAPITAL PUNISHMENT
23 IVAN HORVAT
24 CONFERENCE a)Lifers Grou p
25 BRIAN BOYK O
26 CARL HARP (Love & Rage )
27 COLUMNS a)City limits
b)Canadian Dimensions
c)Strike
28 ELECTION CAMPAIGN
29 CASSETTES

 

30 DONALD MARSHALL FUND
31 NORMAN FOX/KEN WARWICK
32 COMMUNITY PRISONER NETWORK CPN

33 MACLEAN ‘ S “Vol Economy of Crime Ch .21 – Civil Disobedience at Prison Gates, By C . Culhane
34 FREE THE FOUR DEFENCE GROUP

35 a) EMERGENCY POWER ORDER (EPO )
b) CAN. SEC. INTELL. SERVICE (CSIS
36 COMM. PRISONER INFO. NETWRK (CPIN
37 INTL . CONFER . PRISON ABOLITION
a) Toronto 198 3
b) Amsterdam 198 5
c) Montreal 198 7
d) Warsaw 199 0
e) USA 1992
38 BRUCE CURTIS DEFENCE CTTEE .
39 MISC . WRITINGS & LECTURE S
40 a) Anti-25 yr . SENTENCE CAMPAIGN
41 VICTIMS
42 [stop] a) RENOUS ; bO PORT CARTIE
43 CAMERON KERLEY ANTOINE
44 COURT CHALLENGE PROGRAM (prison
a) ETA-Funeral

b) AID S
c) INUIT

d)GS T

45 MISCARRIAGE OF JUSTICE
a) PRISON THEATRE
46 CONSPIRACY OF BROTHERS
47 PRISON NEWS (U . Vic .) LAW FOUND
48 CANADIAN SOCIETY FOR PRISONS SYSTEM IMPROVEMENT
XI MISCELLANEOUS LEAFLETS
XII OUR GENERATION/BLACK ROSE BOOK
XIII INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS
XIV NICARAGUA TRIP (1988 )
XV C .C . LIFE HISTORY PROJECT
XVI a)CORONER : S . MACLEAN, XIV 6 KEN HISCOX
XVII WAR (PERSIAN GULF )

 

Ruth Morris 1933-2001

(photo of Ruth Morris, right and Ruth Bradley-St. Cyr,  co-authors of the book Transcending Trauma-Winding Trail Press)

Ruth Morris was a devoted member of the Religious Society of Friends also known as the Quakers, in addition to being a well-published professor of Sociology and a social activist.

She was a strong advocate for prison abolition and an emerging model of justice that called for reconciliation between victims,  offenders and the community. Transformative justice, as it is now known has been instituted in a number of Canadian scenarios with exceptional community support, particularly among the Mennonite community who run a number of these programs and realize healing results for both victims and offenders.

Ruth’s reaction to racism, poverty and the Vietnam war galvanized her social activist stance and when she moved to Canada from the U.S. in the 1960’s she began further work which included a bail program for prisoners, a residence and half-way house for ex-offenders as well as working on getting banking facilities for the poor, a drop-in center for the homeless and a conflict resolution center with a multi-cultural focus.

She was a well published author both academically and outside academia writing dozens of magazine articles and books. She received many awards including the Order of Canada in 2001 shortly before her death.

Ruth was an ebullient yet unassuming woman. Her warmth and respect for all who she met was evident from the first moment. What struck me also was a sense that she was a woman who would not turn anyone away. Acceptance of all, where they were, as they were, without judgment, is not an easy place to be for many of us, but for Ruth it seemed the most natural thing in the world.

Links related to Ruth Morris

The Wikipedia page for Ruth Morris

From an issue of Let’s Talk a journal of Correctional Services Canada,  Ruth receives the Ron Wiebe Restorative Justice Award with photos. (p. 18 of a pdf file)

The introductory page to the archives of York University Toronto where Ruth’s papers have been preserved gives a brief biographical sketch of Ruth and describes the material of hers in their archives

The publisher’s blurb for the book she wrote called Transcending Trauma relates more about Ruth as an author.

Conclusion

As pessimism, instability and anger grow in the world, those who will not turn away from the suffering of others are needed more than ever.  The example set by the lives of Claire Culhane and Ruth Morris can hopefully inspire others to hold their gaze steady and press on.

If you believe in something, you live that life-style. – Claire Culhane

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2 comments on “Life Teachers: Claire Culhane and Ruth Morris

  1. I remember the series of hostage takings and riots that Claire seemed to be in the middle of as I was either in the B.C.Pen or watching the story break in a halfway house.She cared more for the people she was trying to help than for herself.What people don’t understand is that the prison guards and their union want the joints run with a 24 hr lockdown,no visits and no mixing of inmate units at yard time.It was people like Claire who helped with the forming of inmate committees back when prisoners had some say in how they were to be treated for the next 10 years.These organizations have been disbanded and the guards union has had their way in how prisons are being run today.We need more people like Claire Culhane.People who care about the people society has chosen to forget.

    • Hi Terry

      Glad you stopped by. I remember that situation of the hostage takings and so on too. It was on the news quite a bit. And I read her books about that time and what she was thinking as she was involved.

      I do agree with you about what the powers that run Corrections would like. A Pelican Bay in every town. There’s so much of a smokescreen going on now with a lot of politically correct quotations about rights and how things are better. They aren’t by any means. But the public buys some professor type warden being interviewed about the latest “techniques of inmate management” and that kind of stuff, like they’re running a bank or something. Too many people forget that it’s human beings not stock certificates being locked up.

      I am sorry to hear that the inmate committees are not functioning. They were really helpful for a lot of people. What about lifer’s groups and aboriginal groups and those kind of things? Do they have any backing still or is that being pulled as well? I’ve been a little out of touch because of where I am now [India].

      Claire was the most courageous woman I ever met. Not in any way afraid to stand her ground. The issues of the suffering of human beings was always her first priority, never her own ego or comfort or safety just as you said. And I think because of that she got respect, not only from people she helped but from people she stood up to as well. They may not have liked her but a good majority sure as hell respected her.

      Thanks for commenting Terry.
      Take care.

      [Your email name gave me a smile-I feel like that too sometimes]

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