Class-action lawsuit alleging systemic racism within Correctional Service Canada gains momentum

·3 min read
A proposed class-action lawsuit against Correctional Service Canada was launched in January, alleging systemic racism in the prison agency's workplace. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press - image credit)
A proposed class-action lawsuit against Correctional Service Canada was launched in January, alleging systemic racism in the prison agency's workplace. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press - image credit)

As it awaits certification, a proposed class-action lawsuit filed last month against Correctional Service Canada (CSC) is garnering a lot of support.

The statement of claim was filed Jan. 11 on behalf of two Indigenous officers who have worked for the prison agency in Saskatchewan and Alberta, Jennifer Sanderson and Jennifer Constant.

The pair are alleging systemic racism within the CSC workplace.

While nothing has been proven in court, the plaintiffs allege they and other racialized colleagues were treated as though they were "inmates and not like equals" by both CSC staff and management. As a result, the statement of claim alleges it has created an "'us versus them' mentality" within the prison agency.

Since the suit was launched last month, Aden Klein, the Vancouver-based lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said his law firm has received more than 30 calls from other former and current racialized CSC workers wanting to be a part of it.

"They're alleging similar things — they're alleging racist taunts and inappropriate jokes at their expense. They're alleging not ever being considered for promotions, despite going through all the requirements required," Klein explained. "Really, it boils down to differential treatment for those individuals."

Late last month, CSC spokesperson Kyle Lawlor told CBC News in an emailed statement the prison agency is aware of the suit, but wouldn't comment on it directly as it's before the courts.

However, Lawlor noted measures are in place to help prevent and eliminate racism and discrimination at CSC. A "workplace wellness and employee well-being strategy" implemented last fall — which aims to make addressing such complaints easier for CSC workers — was listed as an example.

"CSC does not tolerate these behaviours and is committed to providing a workplace that is healthy, supportive and free of harassment and discrimination," Lawlor wrote. "Fostering a work environment that is safe and inclusive for everyone is our top priority."

'We'll get through it as a group'

Sanderson, a former correctional officer at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary and one of the lead proposed plaintiffs in the case, said it's comforting to see others joining in.

"I think that if there are enough people that come together and understand that we'll get through it as a group, there will be positive [outcomes]," she said.

Jennifer Sanderson, a mother of six from the Wahpeton Dakota Nation, alleges she experienced several 'pointed racial remarks' and insensitive questions during her time as a correctional officer at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary between 2009 and 2017.
Jennifer Sanderson, a mother of six from the Wahpeton Dakota Nation, alleges she experienced several 'pointed racial remarks' and insensitive questions during her time as a correctional officer at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary between 2009 and 2017.

At this time, Klein said CSC's council is still reviewing the case. However, he noted, the class-action certification process could take anywhere from months to years.

With more former and current CSC workers willing to get on board, should it get certified, Klein said it hopes to prove how widespread the issue is.

"When you look at every individual circumstance, it feels individual — it could conceivably be connected to that one person — but when you start gathering all these stories and see that they're all so similar, it shows that it's a systemic problem," he explained.

A mother of six from the Wahpeton Dakota Nation, Sanderson noted she ultimately chose to launch the suit to set an example for her children and in honour of her late mother, a Duck Lake residential school survivor.

"You don't ever think that you'll have to continue on the fight after your family member's gone," a teary-eyed Sanderson said. "You think that society is progressing and government agencies are progressing, but they're failing."