Art that Breaks Down Barriers

By Colin McGregor

In a Quebec City theater, an unusual event: an exhibition of paintings, poems and sculptures all created by people with criminal records. Personnes judicarisées, (People brought to justice) to use the terminology of criminologists. The welcome from visitors to this opening is warm and positive.

For the fifth consecutive year, Alter Justice, an organization defending the rights of people in the justice system, and L’Aumônerie Communauté de Québec are collaborating to organize Artis Judiciali. It is a month-long art exhibition presented at the Périscope Theater, in the heart of the ancient capital.

Art can prove to be a medium of salvation, say the organizers of the event.

“Art is a way of expressing emotions,” says Daniel Poulin-Gallant, criminologist and director-general of Alter Justice. “Emotions can be positive or negative, or more difficult to live with. This allows you to put them on a board. If the person does pencil drawings, music, poetry, dance, it allows you to express your feelings, it allows you to make peace and live with this slightly more difficult passage of life.”

He explains: “A person who is a little more at peace with themselves will tend to be in tune with a community. They will be more integrated with their community. Art allows you to express emotions, which is not always easy with words. This helps reduce the person’s internal tension. They will be less likely to use drugs or alcohol, which will perhaps prevent a criminal act.”

From Across the Province

“We receive works from participants across Quebec,” says Justine Bélanger, jurist and project manager for the 5th edition of Artis Judiciali.

At the same time, still within the framework of Artis Judicial, an art and writing competition open to anyone serving a sentence in a penitentiary anywhere in Quebec is being organized. They note good participation from prisons, says Ms. Bélanger. They receive poems, slams and stories – they’re sometimes “a little special,” says Mr. Poulin-Gallant.

There is and was, over the years, sculpture, music, crafts, and pyrography which have been and are part of the exhibition and competition.

An Incomplete Picture

A person is much more complex than their criminal acts, believes Mr. Poulin-Gallant. “A criminal record is a photo or photos of someone’s darkest moments. It could also be a father, a mother, a brother, a sister, a work colleague, it could be an artist or a person who competes in cycling. Every person is complex in their beauty. Crime does not define someone. Artis Judiciali aims to deconstruct this photo to say that it is not in 2D but in 3D. So there are many sides to a person.”

“The opening evening,” says Ms. Bélanger, “the vernissage, is the moment when we provoke a meeting with the community, which may harbor certain prejudices conveyed by the media, by the newspapers. These people will be put in contact with people brought to justice. With these exchanges the public will be able to see that these people are not defined by their actions and that there is something else to discover about these people. It is to provoke this meeting to undo stereotypes. Because it’s not always easy to approach this kind of subject, it’s taboo. This type of event is unifying and there is an atmosphere of exchange.”

“The event attracts a lot of curiosity,” says Mr. Poulin-Gallant. “To see that people are curious, that they are ready to go beyond their prejudices, I find that very encouraging, and I think that I can speak for most people on Artis Judiciali that it is very encouraging to see that there are changes in the paradigm in terms of perceptions of people in the criminal justice system.”

Any Reactions…?

“For the last five years, I have not encountered any negative reactions from the general public,” says Ms. Bélanger. “It is very well received with kindness and curiosity. It’s not something that we see a lot, this kind of activity. People are not going to follow it on social networks or read about it, they are going to get up and travel to meet an individual. It’s human contact. So it is appreciated as much by partners as by participants and visitors.”

“People thank us for being able to learn,” Mr. Poulin-Gallant tells us. “The discovery of a new universe that sometimes we did not dare to go inside. We accomplish our mission of making this universe known and deconstructing myths.”

As for the competition in prisons, he observes that “It’s interesting to see that these people want to get involved, and then demonstrate their creative spirit as a means of rehabilitation.”

Ms. Bélanger, a volunteer with Alter Justice since the beginning of the Artis Judiciali program, says of her involvement that “being in contact with people in the justice system really made me aware of this cause. It taught me a lot of things. What do we learn at school in criminology versus what do we learn in the field with real people, discussing with them, brought me a lot with my empathy, my listening. I am more inclined to approach people, to be interested in their stories, instead of sometimes judging too quickly. This is something that has developed during the work of this project.”


According to Mr. Poulin-Gallant, “On a personal level, working in the community with people who may be marginalized, who may be a little excluded from society, brings you a good dose of humility in your vision of life. Sometimes we can complain ‘my life is not easy’ but sometimes we tell ourselves that there are people who have it much more difficult than us, then tell ourselves that we have a similar life path, and it could have been me who went to prison, who was brought to justice, and there was x, y situation which ensured that this did not happen.”

Alter Justice is a non-profit organization that offers various intervention, information and support programs to people in court proceedings and in detention in a Quebec correctional establishment (sentence of less than two years). But the Artis Judiciali program is open to all those who are serving or have served a federal sentence (two years or more) or a provincial sentence in any of Quebec’s prisons.

The Alter Justice organization works mainly with people involved in the criminal justice system and their families to provide them with information on the functioning of the Quebec correctional system, on rights and obligations in a prison environment, criminal records and suspensions (requests for pardon).

This year, in 2023, the opening vernissage will take place at the Périscope Theater on October 12. The creative works will be on display there until November 12.

For more information:

Périscope Theater, 2 rue Crémazie est, Québec City, Quebec.

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