Federal prison watchdog leaves unfinished business behind as replacement sought

Howard Sapers, Correctional Investigator of Canada, holds a news conference in Ottawa on Wednesday, October 8, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Canada’s outgoing prison watchdog says he wishes he had more time to work on major issues plaguing the federal correctional system and that he has been given little explanation as to why his contract was not renewed after more than a decade of service.

Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, said the past 11 years have been gratifying for him but he admits as a March 31 contract deadline approached, he assumed the Public Safety Ministry was at the very least considering his reappointment.

“I’m disappointed, there’s no doubt about it,” he said. “I just wish that they had a better-defined and less clumsy process when it comes to reappointments.”

Sapers said it almost came to the point where his post would be left vacant, but on the last possible day the ministry could have extended his contract, he was told he would only be kept on for an interim period of one year at the most, or until a new candidate could be found.

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The government is already in the process of filling the position, having posted a notice in the Canada Gazette on Saturday that the position is now vacant and that it is actively recruiting applicants.

READ MORE: Conservatives seek replacement for hard-hitting prison watchdog Howard Sapers

Sapers said he is grateful for the more than a decade he worked as Canada’s prison ombudsman, but admits he is leaving behind some important unfinished business.

“I did not feel that my work in this job was finished, there’s still some big files that I would have liked to have stayed working on,” he said.

Sapers said he doesn’t feel that enough progress has been made when it comes to dealing with mentally ill offenders and the governance and accountability of the incarceration of Aboriginals.

“We have miles to go before we’ve even completed the first steps of an appropriate response to the needs of Aboriginal offenders,” he said, adding that prisoner deaths are also a major area of concern.

“The Correctional Service of Canada is still struggling to respond adequately to deaths in custody and learning lessons from deaths in custody and doing everything possible to prevent similar fact deaths from occurring again,” he said.

Sapers said there are also some needs of female offenders that have not been addressed by the CSC as well, particularly with regard to reintegration back into the community from the correctional system.

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WATCH: Prison watchdog Howard Sapers on Canada’s troubled female inmates

But Sapers does remain confident about the future of his department, even without him at the helm.

“I’m feeling disappointed, I’m dissatisfied with the process,” he said. “I’m feeling good about the office though, the office is in very good shape.”

Sapers said the government “has done nothing to undermine or interfere with the mandate of the office,” and he is confident his department will continue working effectively under a new Correctional Investigator.

“The role of an ombudsman is to respond to maladministration and that’s what I’ve done and that’s what this office has done. That was the will of Parliament when the office was created and that’s how I suspect my replacement will behave as well,” he said.

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“If the government was getting rid of me because they felt that the office was out of sync with its agenda, then that problem is not going to go away by replacing me. I expect that the person who comes in after me is going to do the job the same way.”

But despite the curious nature of the government’s last-minute decision to remove Sapers, he said he wasn’t given much of an explanation as to why he was let go.

“I’ve been given no reason other than I’ve been here long enough,” he said.

“There’s been stories written that it is somehow punitive or that the government felt that I was too much of a thorn in their side, but that’s speculative, none of that’s been expressed to me.”

Sapers said he has received many messages of thanks and support since the decision to find a replacement was announced, but admits he’s not entirely sure what’s next for him.

“I’m hoping to stay in an area that will allow me to pursue my own interests and belief in police and social justice and social policy,” he said, adding that he is doing his best to stay positive about the situation.

“I’ve done the job the way I believed it needed to be done, it’s now come to an end and that was not my decision.”

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A spokesman for Public Safety Minister would not comment on the reasoning behind the decision to not reappoint Sapers but did offer a short statement on Wednesday.

“Mr. Sapers has been reappointed for a term of up to a year while the search for suitable replacement candidates is ongoing,” said Jeremy Laurin, Press Secretary to Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Minister Steven Blaney.

“We thank Mr. Sapers for more than a decade of service as Correctional Investigator, and we wish him all the best in his future endeavours.”

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