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A view of from the men's maximum security unit of the Saskatchewan Penitentiary in Prince Albert, Sask., on Jan. 23, 2001.Thomas Porter/The Canadian Press

Correctional Service Canada enabled systemic racism among its racialized staff, says a proposed class-action lawsuit against the federal government launched on behalf of two Indigenous officers who worked for the prison agency.

The pair say they faced racist insults, that their careers were undercut by systemic issues and that Correctional Service Canada (CSC) has consistently neglected to address racialized staffers’ complaints.

The lawsuit’s statement of claim says the treatment racialized staff are subjected to is endemic to the agency. “CSC management and staff treat racialized staff as though they are inmates,” the suit says. “It is an ‘us versus them’ mentality, and racialized CSC staff members are on the outside.” The allegations have not been proven in court.

Filed in Federal Court on Jan. 11, this is the second proposed class-action regarding systemic racism against CSC this month. A suit filed the same day alleges the agency’s initial security classifications – used to determine which prison inmates go to and the programs they can access – are systemically racist and result in harsher prison terms, particularly for Indigenous women.

Last year, a Globe and Mail investigation found CSC’s risk assessment scores, which are used to assign inmates’ security levels and determine their treatment programs, and in parole decisions, were biased against Indigenous and Black inmates. A later investigation also revealed bias against Indigenous women. The House of Commons public safety committee announced a study into CSC’s risk tools.

Aden Klein, a Vancouver-based lawyer for the plaintiffs in the CSC officers’ case, said “a lot less attention has been paid to racism against fellow employees.”

The class-action names two representative plaintiffs, Jennifer Anne Sanderson and Jennifer Constant. Ms. Sanderson, a member of the Wahpeton Dakota Nation, was a CSC correctional officer from 2009 to 2017 in the maximum-security unit at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary; Ms. Constant, a member of the Deh Gah Gotie Dene, has worked at CSC since 2011, first as an officer at the maximum-security Edmonton Institution and later as an aboriginal liaison officer.

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Jennifer Constant is one of the lead plaintiffs who says she faced discrimination and verbal abuse.Handout

CSC and Public Safety Canada said they could not comment on the lawsuit as it is before the courts.

In an e-mailed statement, CSC spokesperson Isabelle Robitaille said that creating a safe and inclusive workplace is the agency’s “top priority.” Ms. Robitaille said the agency implemented an “integrated workplace wellness and employee well-being strategy” last fall, is working to build more diverse leadership, and that it has mandatory diversity training for all staff. “We are resolute in our commitment to addressing systemic racism,” she said.

Public Safety spokesperson Mary-Liz Power said the government “takes allegations of workplace discrimination very seriously,” and that “there is no place in Canada for racism and discrimination.”

The suit lists several examples of remarks and treatment Ms. Sanderson says she endured working for the prison agency, including questions from coworkers such as: “How come you aren’t a drunk?” and “Why don’t you wear feathers to work?”

In one instance, a group of officers allegedly called Ms. Sanderson over, telling her it was “shirtless Sunday.” Her superior interjected: “No, it’s residential school Sunday at the prison today.”

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The Edmonton Institution, a maximum security prison located on the northeast corner of Edmonton, on Jan. 10, 2011.Ian Jackson/The Globe and Mail

The suit further alleges that when Ms. Sanderson was pregnant, her superior officer asked if the baby would “come out powwow dancing.”

Before the suit can proceed, its proposed class – all racialized people who worked for or with CSC – will need to be certified by a judge. In any given year, CSC employs thousands of racialized people: The federal Treasury Board Secretariat said that 3,602 CSC staff identified as racialized in March, 2019.

Ms. Constant, 46, said she doesn’t believe CSC as an institution takes racism seriously. “As a residential school survivor, I like to think of myself as a tough person,” she told The Globe and Mail. “I’ve been in many workplaces, and I’ve never had to work in a place like that.” She has been on leave from CSC since early 2019.

She said the discrimination went beyond insults. She was once passed up for a job set aside for Indigenous people, she said, after another staffer falsely declared themselves Indigenous.

According to Ms. Constant, CSC is not receptive when racialized staff raise concerns about their workplace experiences. “They’re all talk,” she said. “Our input, our opinions, our feedback – it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t make a difference. They just slough us off.”

While she is passionate about her work in corrections, Ms. Constant said she decided to bring the lawsuit to set a precedent for others, and as an example for her daughter, who is in university.

“This kind of treatment – racism – shouldn’t go on,” she said.

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