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Memorial crosses outside EMDC removed following grievance board ruling

A memorial sits outside of London's Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre to honour the inmates who have died at the troubled jail. Andrew Graham/980 CFPL

A memorial outside of London’s Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre, erected to honour the lives of inmates who have died at the jail over the last 12 years, has been taken down and temporarily placed into storage, the Ministry of the Solicitor General said Tuesday.

The unsanctioned memorial was first established at the southwest corner of Exeter Road and Sholto Drive in 2018, and has been the scene of regular demonstrations over conditions at the jail and the treatment of inmates. At least 19 inmates have died at EMDC since 2009.

In May, the Grievance Settlement Board ordered the Ministry of the Solicitor General to remove the memorial, which is located on provincial property, because it negatively impacted the mental health of staff at the jail.

The ruling by arbitrator Christopher Albertyn came in response to a grievance filed by OPSEU, the union representing EMDC staff, who argued the memorial constituted an “unacceptable risk to the psychological health and safety of staff members at the facility.”

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Read more: Lawyer, loved ones frustrated by decision to remove memorial crosses outside of EMDC

“There are officers at the facility who suffer from PTSD in relation to these deaths, or other traumatic incidents that they have experienced at work,” the union argued.

The crosses were a “constant reminder of traumatic and tragic circumstances,” and that they posed a threat to the mental health and physiological safety of EMDC staff who had to pass the memorial daily while going to and from work, the union argued.

Albertyn agreed, and ruled the province had “not taken every precaution reasonably necessary to protect the health and safety” of jail staff, and that it had failed to meet its obligations under the collective agreement and under the OSHA.

As a result, the memorial was ordered to be taken down within 90 days.

In a brief emailed statement, The Ministry of the Solicitor General confirmed that the crosses were removed on Monday in compliance with the order.

“The ministry will be storing the memorial crosses,” spokesperson Brian Ross said, “and should family members wish to come and collect them they can email SOLGEN.Correspondence@ontario.ca.”

According to the Albertyn’s ruling, the province is to keep the crosses for 30 days to allow family members to collect them, after which they will be disposed.

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The union has said it is willing to work with the province and with the families to find a suitable site for a memorial, Albertyn wrote in his decision.

“A suitable site is one where those driving to and from work at EMDC are not forced to view it. The determination of any site by the (province) must include the Union’s agreement, acting reasonably, and consultation with the affected families.”

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In an interview with 980 CFPL on July 5, London lawyer Kevin Egan said the families of the deceased inmates were surprised by the decision to remove the memorial, and had not been contacted about it.

“It was it was well more than 45 days (after the grievance board decision) that the families became aware of it,” he said, adding that it wasn’t until a reporter came across the decision online and asked the families about it that they learned of it.

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“There was no communication at all for more than 45 days, and then a few families got phone calls, I believe three families have been contacted, one of which was told, ‘hey, you’ve had enough time to grieve.’ I mean, it’s just totally insensitive.”

Egan said he had been instructed by family members to begin a judicial review application over the decision and whether Albertyn had  jurisdiction in making some of the orders.

“The subject matter being the crosses themselves, the land on which they’re presently situated, and the fact that the decision goes far beyond removing the crosses from their present location, but prohibits them from being placed anywhere where correctional officers might see them on their way to work,” Egan said.

“To me, that’s extremely far reaching and well beyond the jurisdiction of an arbitrator.”

The judicial review application was still being finalized as of Tuesday, Egan told 980 CFPL.

Egan is a partner at McKenzie Lake Lawyers who is representing more than 13,000 people in a $325 million class-action lawsuit against the province over conditions at the jail.

EMDC has been plagued by overcrowding, poor supervision and violence for years, and has been home to numerous drug overdoses, as well as a COVID-19 outbreak earlier this year.

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Two years ago, the former chief commissioner of Ontario’s Human Rights Commission described the jail as being overcrowded, unsanitary, and dangerous, and that it exhibited conditions dehumanizing and antithetical to prisoner rehabilitation.

With so many things wrong with the jail, Egan says he questions why correctional staff “would waste their time” on a hearing about the memorial “rather than bringing their grievances about the terrible conditions inside the jail to the attention of arbitrators and others who can issue orders about the safety inside the jail.”

Read more: July 6, 2021: London man dies after found unresponsive in cell at EMDC

Nineteen inmates have died at Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre since 2009. Two deaths took place within days of each other earlier this year, while the most recent death occurred just last week involving a 32-year-old London man.

The Special Investigations Unit is investigating the death of Brandon Marchant, who died in hospital on July 6, three days after he was found unresponsive in his cell.

The 32-year-old had been at the jail for offences laid in connection with a single-vehicle crash along Hwy. 401 near Ingersoll on Canada Day that left himself and two others injured.

The crash occurred around 4:30 p.m., according to the OPP, who at the time said they responded to a crash involving a stolen vehicle which left the roadway and struck a pole.

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Two passengers in the vehicle were taken from the scene to hospital with serious injuries. Marchant, who was also injured, allegedly fled the area on foot and was located a short time later nearby.

He was taken to the hospital for treatment and was later transported to the jail where he was found unresponsive in his cell on July 3. The 32-year-old had been placed in a segregation cell as a result of his injuries.

Details about Marchant’s death remain limited.

In a statement last week, Ross, the ministry spoksperson, said the death would be subject to multiple investigations, including an internal investigation and one by the Office of the Chief Coroner.

“Should the coroner determine that the death was anything other than natural causes, an inquest would be called. Should the death result from natural causes, an inquest would be at the discretion of the coroner,” Ross said.

Of the 19 inmate deaths at EMDC, inquests have been held into at least six of them, with the most recent occurring last year in relation to the deaths of Floyd Deleary, 39, and Justin Thompson, 27, in August 2015 and October 2016, respectively.

— With files from Jacquelyn LeBel

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