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Mourners maintain physical distancing as they pay respects at a funeral in Toronto on Tuesday April 14, 2020. Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, who oversees federal prisons, has said he is discussing options for release with corrections and parole authorities.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Federal authorities are not addressing the country’s worst prison outbreak of COVID-19 with the urgency it deserves, according to Indigenous leaders in British Columbia.

A prisoner at the medium-security Mission Institution died this week, and 55 prisoners have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the Correctional Service of Canada. The CSC website lists the prison’s capacity at 216. Six Indigenous leaders in B.C. and two senior CSC officials held a conference call on Thursday to discuss the outbreak.

Doug White, chairman of the B.C. First Nations Justice Council, said the government representatives told them that 68 prisoners are in isolation because of COVID-19, and 21 of whom are Indigenous. Indigenous peoples make up five per cent of the Canadian population, but more than 30 per cent of federal inmates.

“What is happening at Mission is exactly the nightmare scenario that everyone has been raising concern about for over a month now,” Mr. White said in an interview.

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The CSC were not ready to provide a comment when contacted Friday afternoon.

The justice council and other groups, including the BC Assembly of First Nations and the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, called Friday for urgent safety measures. They include immediate testing of all inmates and staff at Mission (85 tests had been done as of Friday), increased screening of workers as they enter and exit, support for isolated inmates, and increased access to counselling and mental health resources.

They also called for the release of as many people as possible, with priority on medically vulnerable individuals, and support plans for those released, including measures for housing, financial aid and community safety.

Mr. White said he did not get a sense from the two government officials on the call – Denis Boucher, a regional deputy commissioner, and Dan Jack, who is involved with Indigenous initiatives at CSC – that the authorities grasp the seriousness of the danger.

“He tried to convey that they have things under control," Mr. White said of Mr. Boucher, "and there was no sense that what we were talking about on the phone was a serious and urgent health crisis where lives were at risk.” Mr. White also said Mr. Boucher did not provide clarity on CSC’s policies around releasing inmates during the pandemic.

“I expressed my very serious concern and that these are men who were not sentenced to have their lives put in peril in this way, and that they owe their utmost duty to do everything they can to safeguard their well-being.”

Mr. Boucher was away from the office and not available for comment when The Globe and Mail attempted to contact him on Friday.

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, who oversees federal prisons, has said he is discussing options for release with corrections and parole authorities.

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