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A proposed class-action lawsuit alleges Ottawa was negligent in failing to ensure female employees of Correctional Service Canada could work in an environment free of gender-based harassment, discrimination and assault.

A statement of claim was filed in Federal Court last March and a hearing is taking place this week in Vancouver. The allegations contained in the claim have not been proven in court.

Angela Bespflug, the lawyer leading the class action, said in a statement that no amount of money can compensate the employees for the harms that they’ve endured but the legal action gives a voice to their experiences.

“The harms that these women have experienced cannot be tolerated in any workplace in Canada, and certainly not in a Government of Canada workplace,” she said. “The culture at corrections is the antithesis of gender equality.”

The claim alleges that harassment, discrimination and assault were systemic; occurred over several decades; and took place in CSC workplaces throughout the country. It also says that the alleged conduct breached CSC employees’ rights to security of the person and rights to be free from discrimination on the basis of sex.

The CSC is a federal agency within the government’s Public Safety portfolio. It is responsible for managing institutions of various security levels and to supervise offenders under conditional release in the community.

When asked about the proposed class action, CSC said it takes the issue of harassment, discrimination and violence very seriously.

“Everyone deserves a safe and healthy work environment – and one that is inclusive and equitable,” senior media relations adviser Marie Pier Lécuyer said in a statement. “We remain steadfast in our commitment to working with our employees to create the environment they expect and deserve.”

Ms. Lécuyer pointed to a series of measures at CSC and noted that they are designed to identify and address complaints related to harassment, discrimination and violence. For example, she highlighted the implementation of a tip line to report misconduct and mandatory training sessions to staff.

Plaintiffs Sharlene Hudson and Brinda Wilson-Demuth, who both worked as prison guards, alleged in the statement of claim that the government was “systemically negligent” in failing to have procedures in place that would have prevented gender-based harassment, discrimination, assault, retaliation and reprisals in the workplace.

The claim also says “ongoing, widespread and pervasive sexualized harassment, discrimination, assault, violence and reprisals” caused the plaintiffs and other class members harm, including post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression, and limited their careers, resulting in the loss of income.

CSC is facing other proposed class-action lawsuits.

Last January, one was filed in Federal Court on behalf of tens of thousands of inmates alleging systemic bias in security classifications that affect inmates’ living arrangements, access to treatment programs and likelihood of getting parole.

The same month, a separate proposed class-action said that CSC enabled systemic racism among its racialized staff. It was launched on behalf of two Indigenous officers who worked for the prison agency. The lawsuit’s statement of claim said the treatment racialized staff are subjected to is endemic to CSC.

In 2020, 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.

With reports from Tom Cardoso

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