Class-action lawsuit launched against Correctional Service Canada alleges systemic racism in the workplace

·3 min read

A class-action lawsuit alleging systemic racism within the Correctional Service Canada (CSC) workplace has been launched on behalf of two Indigenous officers who have worked for the prison agency.

In the statement of claim filed on Jan. 11 in Vancouver, plaintiffs Jennifer Sanderson, 44, and Jennifer Constant, 46, allege they and other racialized colleagues were treated as though they were "inmates and not like equals" by both management and staff at CSC, creating an "'us versus them' mentality."

The statement goes on to say that Sanderson and Constant "have suffered serious infringement of their constitutional rights to equality, as well as serious physical and psychological damages, out-of-pocket expenses and loss of income."

In an emailed statement Friday, CSC spokesperson Kyle Lawlor said the prison agency is aware of the proposed class action lawsuit, but wouldn't comment further as it's before the courts.

Lawlor noted measures are in place to help prevent and eliminate racism and discrimination at CSC. He listed the implementation of a "workplace wellness and employee well-being strategy" last fall, which aims to make addressing such complaints easier for CSC workers, 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," he wrote. "Fostering a work environment that is safe and inclusive for everyone is our top priority."

'Standing for many others'

Aden Klein, the Vancouver-based lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said this suit comes after years of pain for his clients and many others who have been in their position.

"There are countless instances of racism outside the CSC throughout Canada, but it's still looked at skeptically and not always believed," he said. "[Sanderson and Constant's] voices are standing for many others who don't feel comfortable coming forward, as the traumatization of it would be too severe."

Sanderson, a mother of six and member of the Wahpeton Dakota Nation in Saskatchewan, claims that in her time working at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary between 2009 and 2017, she faced several "pointed racial remarks" and insensitive questions.

Some of those included, "How come you aren't a drunk?" and "Why don't you wear feathers to work?"

Jennifer Sanderson/Facebook
Jennifer Sanderson/Facebook

Constant, a member of the Deh Gah Gotie Dene Band of the Northwest Territories, is currently on leave from her job as an Indigenous liaison officer at the maximum-security Edmonton Institution. Before that, she worked as a corrections officer there from 2011 to 2016.

"Her years with the CSC were grueling," the suit alleges. "During her employment with the CSC, Ms. Constant witnessed, experienced and endured from CSC management and staff racism, discrimination, and verbal and abusive behaviours that were malicious, vindictive and willful."

The suit goes on to state that Constant was passed up for promotions as "she watched fellow non-racialized colleagues climb the ranks," including one position that was "meant for Indigenous CSC staff members."

The next steps

Before the suit can continue, the proposed class (all racialized employees who worked for or with CSC) would need to be certified by a judge. Klein said the timeline for the certification is still in the works, but will likely be delayed due to the pandemic.

If it goes through the courts, Klein said they're hoping to see the claimants financially compensated and, as a result of the compensation, a "behaviour modification" by CSC and the federal government.

"We want to see more adequate representation of racialized individuals in management and leadership positions," he explained, "so that if there are lower-level employees that are enduring racism, they have somebody who they can actually complain to who will take it seriously."