I don’t get out much. So while most employable Canadian males my age already have a passport tattooed with the symbols of their exotic travels, my exposure to international culture comes only one way: through a country’s visiting envoys — and their pending immigration removal orders.
“What’s your name?” I asked the twenty-something black man sitting in my barber chair.
“Where you from, Junior?”
Of course. In Canadian prison, every black kid is from Jamaica. Or Haiti. Or Burundi. Never mind that they haven’t been there since they were four months old — if ever. I guess it sounds cooler than Toronto’s Jane–Finch corridor, or Montréal-Nord.
“Nice island. I was there in ’89. Ocho Rios was my favorite. I really liked those falls.”
In the mirror I saw the kid’s face open up, his smile as true as the moon. The teeth were flawless. In his left ear a diamond stud caught all of the room’s light; it had to be a carat and a quarter.
“Ma grand-fawda, he live in da hills der mon. I use to clam da falls eeeeeevry time I go to see him der mon. Ya mon, Ochos. I know dat pless good, mon. I be goin’ back when ma tam is finished.”
The next forty minutes was an exercise in deciphering the exact style of haircut that June-ya from Jamaaaayca mon wanted. First he wanted something called waves. Then he wanted a palm tree carved in the back. Then he wanted the sides faded into the top — in sixteenth-of-an-inch increments. In the end I just shaved his head.
“O.K. Vonnnncoover. S’looking good, mon.” Junior leaned in close to the large barber’s mirror and inspected his denuded dome. He looked like he was going to cry. “Eyree mon. I come see you ‘gain — nex-time.” I doubted that even more than I doubted the bogus Caribbean accent. Maybe it’s because the first time I ever saw Jamaican Junior, he had been talking to a parole officer in the cell block next to mine. And on that day his Anglo-Saxon diction had been better than Tolkein’s.
Since that sad September of a decade ago — when visiting company busted some of America’s most valuable furniture — fortress North America has all but burned the Welcome Wagon. In Canada, that’s meant a striking change from immigration policies that were written in the days of Vietnam draft dodgers. Nowadays, those who want to become part of the Great White North can find themselves on double-secret probation for the first few years. And if they slip even once — especially a slip that puts them in the clink — they quickly learn that Air Canada international flights also leave daily.
Sometimes though, the timing of a convict’s deportation leaves me wondering who’s sitting in the pilot’s seat. A couple years back, when my inmate employment involved shaping legal arguments instead of hairdos, I was assigned to help a Guatemalan national named Hugo. Everyone called him Hannibal — as in the serial-killing psychiatrist. As a poor illegal immigrant convicted of murder, Hannibal had nothing to lose – and made sure everyone knew it. For the ten years it took to reach eligibility for a deportation parole, Hannibal did whatever, to whoever, whenever — none of it winsome. Getting this guy kicked out of prison — to the open sewers of South America — would hardly be a test of my legal training. Or so I thought.
“We encourage you to work more closely with your correctional team, and to better address the issues that have led you to reoffend while in custody.” The bottom of the decision sheet said “PAROLE DENIED.” I was stunned. Compared to Hannibal’s home community, life in the Big House was like jumping the evolutionary queue. If he had his way, he’d live in here forever. In ten years he had stabbed six prisoners, been busted for dope a dozen times, and spawned three new Canadian orphans with his girlfriend — a girlfriend serving her life sentence on the provincial welfare roles. In what universe did keeping this guy in the country — at $117,000 tax-payer dollars per year — qualify as a good idea? I guess that the only way to make sense out of prison is to ask those who make cents out of prison. Unfortunately, they never return my calls.
“You hear ‘bout Junior?” Cookie asked me.
“Which one?” I asked the young Edmontonian from Burundi.
“Junior from Jamaica. They was deporting him today and he never said nothin’. Last night he went to all the brothers and borrowed stuff to take pictures in — you know, nice clothes, sunglasses, stuff like that. He even borrowed Biggs’s gold chain — with that fat cross he got from his grams. Biggs go to see him this morning an his cell is empty. You believe it?”
After eighteen years in prison, people should never ask what I believe. But if Biggs really wants to find his granny’s religious relic, I say he’d have better luck looking in the Don Jail than he would at Dunn’s River Falls.