Christmas 2022: Resiliency challenged | John Chaif

By John Chaif

Law360 Canada (December 23, 2022, 9:38 AM EST) --
John Chaif
John Chaif
The story A Christmas Carol may still resonate in this age because the tale encapsulates the reality of the beginning of a richer life. The loss of meaning along the journey of our lives is brought to the fore by the telling of the ghost of Christmas past. The emotionally impoverished state of our present is demonstrated by the condition of our communal reality. And predictions of our future contain little but dire warnings if we continue on our chosen path.

After almost 40 years of life “inside” prison walls, I can speak to the troubled nature of my first Christmas “outside.” Gradual changes adapted to by those living with them are immediately apparent to someone who has been “away” during them. The disappearance of churches is remarkable, for example. The erosion of the meaning of Sunday as a day of rest is very striking. The shift from religious observance to spiritual practice has meant the tenor of everyday life has become more wearing to the community. People are not taking the time to rest as a matter of course. So many seem so weary.

Suicide rates reflect the tough challenges the rituals of Christmas can bring for even the most ordinary of people. Add to these challenges the difficulties of re-entry into familial and community life for the returning prisoner. Even the hardiest and most resilient of returning prisoners can find strange challenges in their first Christmas “on the street.”

First there can be the constant reminders of years of loss. These are complicated by an uncertainty about the nature of ritual within family as well as the greater community. It is difficult to remember how it was in my youth. And even with continual phone and letter contact, because the Internet does not exist within prison walls, the present practices will be incompletely understood. The youth of today seem to be overwhelmed by the continual bombardment of horrifying news. I do not remember the youth of my day being so riddled with anxiety. Churches seem to have been replaced by pharmacies.

There are evolutionary changes to social understandings and practices within Christmas rituals that have been not been shared with me. Not because they were deliberately withheld. But because they are so commonly practised during their slow evolution as to assumed to be known by everyone. To be confronted by a shift in practice followed by blank stares by loved ones, because they can’t comprehend why I don’t know that we now unwrap presents at this time and not the other for example, is to be reminded of time apart in new ways.

These aren’t earth-shattering revelations, but they can be continual nudges by the spectres of loss. Modern scheduling of work at home creates a different social timeline for daily life. More flexibility has meant less social cohesion. Good for traffic flow but bad for the daily routine of supping together as a family unit. It isn’t that these practices changed that carries an impact, it’s that I was not privy to the change as it took place.

The present becomes a place of constant tension between the past and the new now. Again, not necessarily overwhelming within each instance. More a form of water torture ... the slow drip of shift between the remembered past and the expressions of today.

It can be painful to watch loved ones begin to comprehend the depth of the deprivation imprisonment has meant. Family begins to see and experience anew the chasm of separation as a dysfunction of the social self as well as a wounding of the personal being. Again this is a function of gradual shifts across a spectrum of daily life which one has been detached from. Yet, as in the story of the Christmas Carol, the revelation can invoke deeper expressions of love. The trick is not to allow the creation of an elephant in the room. The challenge is to create a space within which I can grow into a new relationship with the rituals of family and community.

That is why this Christmas, my first Christmas with family and loved ones, is a private one. It won’t be spent with strangers. No midnight service at the church. No wandering about the community wishing everyone I meet a merry Christmas. Because I am not sure what it means to have a merry Christmas for the people who have supported me emotionally, psychologically, and physically all these decades. I am not sure what it is for me. To try to connect with the bigger social reality is a challenge for another time. This Christmas is the time to come to an understanding of the story within myself. Like Scrooge, my first Christmas awakened from separation to a new social awareness will be spent getting to know my own family again.

It doesn’t mean I don’t wish everyone reading this a healthy and emotionally robust holiday season. It simply means I am intent on deciphering what that looks like for me and my loved ones. I give you encouragement in your own journey to take this time to do the same.

In 1983, at the age of 27, John Chaif was sentenced to life in prison with 25 years until parole eligibility. In 1988 he escaped from Collins Bay Institution in Kingston, Ont. He was later rearrested in the United States and spent six years in the federal prison system there before being transferred back to Canada. Chaif has spent a great deal of time inside advocating against systemic abuses, including abuses relating to prison labour. His advocacy has at times attracted the attention and opposition of prison authorities. Earlier this year he won a Federal Court challenge he brought after being denied day parole (Chaif v. Canada (Attorney General), 2022 FC 182). Chaif was subsequently released from prison on day parole this past May at the age of 67. He now continues his activism on the outside, as a vocal proponent for the human rights of prisoners.

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