I remember exactly where I was when the news of Errol Greene’s death hit the news in 2016. He was a 26-year-old inmate of the Winnipeg Remand Centre, who died of an epileptic seizure after the guards refused to give him his medication. I was sitting in my office at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival, killing time before lunch by checking the CBC.
His death was everything I feared for myself. I was also 26. I also had epilepsy, and, despite being on some nasty medication that took all joy from my life, my seizures also weren’t controlled.
Despite the fact that an inquiry should have been the automatic and legal response, the Manitoba General Employees’ Union (MGEU) blocked that inquiry. Justice for Errol Greene formed out of a desire to pressure MGEU and the government to have an inquiry. The opportunity fell into my lap to join the working group for Justice for Errol, and I jumped at the chance.
I was not terribly experienced in activism. I had been to a couple rallies here and there, staged a sit-in, and ran a fundraising production of The Vagina Monologues with the Women and Trans Spectrum centre at the University of Winnipeg, but I could hardly call myself an activist.
Activism is easier than you think. I offered to do things I already knew how to do. I created a Facebook page, I wrote a press release, and I wrote an article for the Winnipeg Free Press. Others created posters, distributed flyers, spoke to the press, and bought coffee, or just showed up. Others babysat Errol’s kids. Simple actions.
We had a cause. We made a racket. We made sure that people knew who Errol Greene was and how he had died.
As I wrote in the Winnipeg Free Press, the MGEU blocked an inquiry in order to protect the guards. One plucky internet commentator called me stupid and said that it was the union’s role to protect their workers and provide legal representation; it was not, however, their role to block a legal inquiry entirely.
Publicity can be quite embarrassing when you are doing something wrong. Justice for Errol held three rallies in 2016. Eventually, an inquiry was initiated. The first few hearings were held in early 2018 and will continue on in October.
I felt like the representative of the disability community in the group. At the first rally, across from the Remand Centre, I read a few of my disability poems, and Indigenous drumming was offered as well. I came to the group understanding ableism, but working with them expanded my understanding of intersectionality. Errol’s cause is, at the centre, a racial issue of continued colonialism in Canada.
Black Lives Matter blew up that year with stats around Black deaths in the U.S. and the number of black people in prison. Canadians often consider ourselves morally superior to Americans, but the institutional violence against Black Americans is mirrored in the institutional violence against Indigenous Canadians.
Four prisoners had died in the Remand centre in 2016, including Errol Greene and Holly Hall, who were both Indigenous. The Remand Centre and Canada’s criminal justice system is overflowing with Indigenous people. In 2016–2017, Indigenous people counted for 27 percent of the prison population in Canada. In Manitoba, they formed as much as 75 percent of the prison population. That is an astronomical number considering only 4.9 percent of Canadians self-reported themselves as Indigenous to the Canadian census that year.
Errol Greene died of an epileptic seizure, but, according to his roommate, guards beat him up during previous seizures that day. Guards ignored him when he asked for his medication. He died of a seizure, but he didn’t die because of his epilepsy. He died in a system that over incarcerated people like him because of the continued forces of racism and colonialism in Canada. Theories around this include: racist cops and the continued trauma of residential school. His epilepsy was a factor in his death, but it was the weapon, not the aggressor.
In June of 2017, a paramedic was arrested for fondling a teenage girl thought to be unconscious after she had a seizure. He was reported as saying “Sorry, I had to” at the time.
Both of these victims were epileptic, but they weren’t targeted because of their condition. Their condition was the means by which they were victimized.
Naming prejudice is hard. Many self-respecting women who believe in equal rights shy away from the feminist label. It’s easier, especially for white woman, to become complacent in the structures of oppression, or accept our partly-privileged place, compared to less privileged people.
The intersections of privilege and oppression can be simple. While men hold privilege, a white man has more privilege than a black man. A man with a disability can have more privilege than a woman with a disability. A trans person of colour with a disability has a rougher time of it than a white woman.
But we need to be loud, not just for our own communities, but for the iterations of our communities, especially the racial ones.
Being loud counts, but so does being quiet. Justice for Errol has always centred the needs of Errol’s wife, Rochelle. While Errol’s story is one of many of the injustices Indigenous people face in prison, the group prioritized babysitting her children, holding meetings close to where she lived, and seeking her permission and guidance on how to proceed. Justice for Errol formed to intercede and make Errol’s story known, but also to support a family in need.
This is a common story, but this is also one man and one man’s family, supported by many simple actions by a few people. We cannot bring justice alone.
The provincial inquest into Errol Greene’s death continues October 9–12, 15–16, and possibly the 25th. Please consider supporting his family through the inquest.
Hannah Foulger is a British Canadian theatre artist and writer from Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her disability poetry has been published in Matrix and performed in Sick + Twisted theatre’s Lame Is… cabaret. Her plays Clink and The Bar Scene have been produced at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival.