A longstanding symbol of oppression, barbed wire was invented as a method of enclosure. The woven wires with points placed at intervals proved an inexpensive way to divide property, to impede animals on the open range and to inhibit direct charges of armies. The technology was instrumental in attempts to “tame the west”. Electrified and braided with branches, aligned under tension between post or battens--the steel was galvanized for longevity. Enduring fences are valuable. Barbed wire however, is penetrable to people with the right tools. Razor wire, its human-proof cousin is used atop chain link fences. It features near-continuous cutting surfaces intended to rip clothing and flesh, to inflict serious cuts and psychological deterrence. These wires are under tension such that when cut, the recoil unfurls to lash the person cutting it. Wire fences contain camps: concentration and refugee. They bolster borders, mental institutions and prisons. More people than ever are incarcerated in Canada’s expanding and privatizing prisons. Incarceration rates for Indigenous and Black people continues to rise. Aboriginal people comprise approximately 4% of the population and 25% of the inmate population. In the last decade the Canadian government jailed 87,317 migrants without charges, including hundreds of children. Canada is one of the only “western” countries to have indefinite detention for migrants, with limited access to family and legal counsel. No One Is Illegal collectives and networks have used the symbol of a raised fist lifting barbed wire, imagining the passage of people across colonial borders.
Cecily Nicholson is the administrator of the artist-run centre Gallery Gachet and has worked since 2000 in the downtown eastside neighbourhood of Vancouver,Tsleil-Waututh, Squamish and Musqueam territories. She collaborates with the Joint Effort prison abolition group and is the author of Triage (2011) and From the Poplars (2014), winner of the 2015 Dorothy Livesay prize for poetry.