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Class action alleges Canada prison workers endure systemic racism

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WATCH: A proposed class-action lawsuit alleges Canadian prison staff are subjected to racist work environments and that the corrections service violates the rights of racialized employees – Jan 30, 2021

Warning: This story contains language that may be offensive to readers. 

A proposed class-action lawsuit says Canadian prison staff are subjected to racist work environments.

The lawsuit against the federal government alleges the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) infringes on the constitutional rights of racialized employees.

“CSC management and staff treat racialized staff as though they are inmates, and not like equals,” says the statement of claim, filed on Jan. 11.

“It is an ‘us versus them’ mentality, and racialized CSC staff members are on the outside.”

Read more: Ontario non-profit tackling racism in justice system through education, enhanced reporting

The suit alleges racism is systemic in CSC facilities across Canada. None of the allegations have been proven in court.

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CSC would not comment on the lawsuit because it’s before the courts, but said it takes racism seriously.

“Racism and discrimination have absolutely no place in our society, inside or outside of CSC,” spokesperson Kyle Lawlor said in an emailed statement to Global News.

“CSC does not tolerate these behaviours and is committed to providing a workplace that is healthy, supportive and free of harassment and discrimination.”

The proposed class-action intends to include all current and previous racialized CSC staff, including the plaintiffs, former corrections officers Jennifer Sanderson, 44, and Jennifer Constant, 46.

Since filing the suit, the law firm has been contacted by many potential class members, said the plaintiffs’ Vancouver-based lawyer, Aden Klein.

“It seems that the racism is so widespread that there are a countless number of people that are affected,” Klein told Global News.

The court must certify the case as a class action if it is to proceed.

‘It’s residential school Sunday’

Former corrections officer Sanderson, a member of Wahpeton Dakota Nation, worked in the maximum-security unit at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary in Prince Albert from 2009 to 2017.

“Her time with the CSC was marred by repeated and persistent racist episodes and a culture of racism, which went unchanged even when she was brave enough to complain to CSC management,” the statement of claim says.

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Read more: Canada’s prison watchdog disturbed by ‘Indigenization’ of correctional system

It alleges corrections staff asked Sanderson ignorant questions, including, “How come you aren’t a drunk?” and, “Why don’t you wear feathers to work?”

In 2016, a colleague allegedly told Sanderson, “It’s shirtless Sunday,” to which a higher-ranking officer responded, “No, it’s residential school Sunday at the prison today.”

Sanderson said complaints to management were dismissed. Eventually, she resigned.

“My mental health was suffering and I asked for help,” Sanderson told Global News.

“I got nothing, and I left there in worse shape than when I went in. I felt so completely at a loss.”

‘Malicious, vindictive and willful’

Constant, a member of the Deh Gah Gotie Dene band, was a corrections officer at the Edmonton Institution maximum security prison from 2011 to 2016, then became an Indigenous liaison officer. Constant said she’s on a leave of absence, but won’t be coming back.

“Ms. Constant witnessed, experienced and endured from CSC management and staff racism, discrimination, and verbal and abusive behaviors that were malicious, vindictive and willful,” the suit alleges.

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Read more: Edmonton Institution staff claim torture, abuse and harassment by male co-workers

It says white colleagues climbed the ranks, but despite working hard, Constant wasn’t considered for promotion. She alleges one of her colleagues falsely claimed to be Indigenous, and was promoted to an Indigenous correctional program position.

“We have a lot of educated, … knowledgeable and experienced people out there,” Constant said in an interview on Tuesday.

“I don’t understand why (CSC) continues to hire all these people that are claiming to be Indigenous just to obtain these jobs.”

CSC committed to addressing racism

The CSC has roughly 18,000 employees and manages 43 institutions across Canada, according to its website.

“The mistreatment of prisoners in Canada’s penitentiaries is well known,” the court document says. “In contrast, the abuses within the CSC’s own ranks have been largely hidden.”

Fostering inclusive work environments is a top priority, CSC said.

It implemented a workplace wellness strategy last fall and is strengthening its process for complaints about harassment, discrimination and violence, Lawlor said.

“We are also working to build greater diversity in our leadership positions and have mandatory training in place for employees on diversity and cultural competency to build more inclusion and equity in everything we do,” he says.

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Read more: Minorities over-represented in Canadian prisons

In July, CSC and the Parole Board of Canada created a working group to explore racism in corrections, Lawlor said. The group reviewed CSC policies and programs that address the needs of racialized inmates, he said, as well as those intended to increase workplace diversity.

“To build on this work, we are in the process of developing an anti-racism framework and action plan,” he said.

“We are resolute in our commitment to addressing systemic racism.”

The suit seeks compensatory and punitive damages.

Read more: Prison watchdog annual report raises concerns of ‘culture of impunity’ in Edmonton jail

“The plaintiffs and class members have suffered serious infringement of their constitutional rights to equality, as well as serious physical and psychological damages, out-of-pocket expenses and loss of income,” the claim says.

The two Indigenous women said they hope the case encourages systemic change, including overhauls to CSC policies, management and the complaint process.

“(The system) is failing the people hugely,” Sanderson said, “and it has been for decades.”

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