Freedom of the City: prison staff granted medieval honour

Warden Shawn Bird displays his sword to Mayor Greg Dionne, with Police Chief Troy Cooper standing by his side. Arthur White-Crummey/Daily Herald

The warden of Saskatchewan Penitentiary carried a sword through downtown Prince Albert Sunday. He marched down Central Avenue, bagpipe music blaring along the way.

He approached City Hall, and knocked the hilt of his weapon against the entrance.

Mayor Greg Dionne cautiously opened the door. Accompanied by police chief Troy Cooper, he stepped out to ask the warden what was ado.

“Identify yourself, and the organization that you represent, and your purpose for being here,” the Mayor demanded.

“I’m warden Shawn Bird, of Saskatchewan Penitentiary,” came the response. “I request Freedom of the City.”

“Thank you,” said the mayor. “Permission granted.”

Dionne and Bird were reenacting a centuries old tradition. Medieval cities were wary of men with arms. An incursion of military forces could well mean the end of their independence from neighbouring feudal lords. The right to enter was a privilege, granted only to units that had won the trust of those who lived inside the city walls.

For Dionne, the staff of the Correctional Service of Canada had earned that trust. He granted them the Freedom of the City: the right to march and parade through the streets, armed with their badges, flags and ceremonial swords.

The mayor said that the penitentiary staff are “a big part of this community.” He said they serve the city in many ways, even outside the prison walls.

“It is a great honour for me to preside over this ceremony today,” he said. “As I walked through the ranks and did my inspections I noticed lots of volunteers, I noticed lots of coaches in different fields, and for that, I thank you.”

Bird answered by stressing the symbolism of the occasion.

“The honour of being granted the freedom of the city today is a significant symbol recognizing the depth of trust and respect we have earned,” he said. “We are humbled by the honour.”

About two dozen correctional officers attended the ceremony, along with representatives from the Prince Albert Police Service, the fire department, Parkland Ambulance, the provincial correctional centres and other emergency service organizations.

There were even two chocolate labs, who came to march with their handlers. John Burwood works with April, who is only a year into her duties as a detection dog. She helps intercept contraband at the prison.

“She is still learning,” Burwood said, “but she is good at her job.”

He said April wasn’t bothered by the bagpipes, the marching or the noises of the city.

“I was actually surprised,” he said. “They’re generally a very high energy dog and she did surprisingly well for staying still and following along with the parade.”

One of the detection dogs who participated in the march. Arthur White-Crummey/Daily Herald

After his inspection, mayor Dionne joined April, Burwood and all the others for a march along Central Avenue, past the Daily Herald offices and back around to City Hall.

He said that he appreciates the ceremony of the occasion, especially the formal request at City Hall.

“It kind of swelled my head a little,” he said. “They’re banging on the door asking permission of the city, which is neat… In those days, that’s what happened.”

Bird said those traditions are important to carry forward, especially for a paramilitary force like Correctional Service Canada.

“We are a military type of organization, with a hierarchy, so I think that it’s important that we celebrate this way,” he said. “I think it can show some of our civic pride in being part of this community and having people give us some recognition and credit for the jobs that we do.”

Like the mayor, Bird stressed that correctional workers are part of Prince Albert, deeply woven into the fabric of the community. He said they’re “very involved” and want to live in a “vibrant community.” After all, a strong city helps them carry out their work.

“We have a job to do with respect to reintegration of offenders,” he said. “We certainly can’t do that job alone. It takes an entire community to help with that process, and I think today is hopefully just a recognition of that.”

Correctional officers stand at attention before Memorial Square on Sunday. Arthur White-Crummey/Daily Herald