A pair of prisoners walk through the snow-covered grounds of the Nova Institution for Women. Photo: Senate of Canada

A former federal inmate has launched a proposed class action lawsuit against Correctional Service Canada, claiming the service fails to protect inmates of prisons for women against sexual misconduct and abuse.

The suit, filed in the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia on Wednesday, claims Correctional Service Canada (CSC) does not take adequate measures to prevent staff-to-inmate sexual violence, and that it fails to properly investigate reports of sexual assault when they are brought forward. The suit is awaiting court approval.

A statement of claim submitted to the court outlines a number of allegations, including a failure on the part of CSC to uphold the Charter rights of inmates of prisons for women, specifically their rights to security, equality, and protection from cruel and unusual punishment.

“The stories and experiences I’ve heard described to me by current and former inmates of female correctional facilities describe a systemic problem,” said Mike Dull, the lawyer representing the class, in an interview. “Hopefully this lawsuit will shine a light on, and create an impetus for, policy and procedural changes that will better protect individuals within those institutions.”

The lead plaintiff is a woman named Sara Tessier, representing all victims of abuse in prisons for women in Canada. Tessier is a former inmate of Nova Institution for Women in Truro, N.S. 

Tessier said the power imbalance between prison guards and inmates creates an environment where abuse can occur without accountability.

“You see it all the time, that power imbalance. And it’s just a very scary place … there’s that fear of what’s going to happen if you come forward with something,” she said in an interview.

“That type of environment is literally a playground for predators to carry out their criminal activity and get away with it,” she said. “And you see that from the inside.”

Sexual abuse is underreported among the general population, and according to advocates, inmates are even less likely to report. Inmates fear they will not be believed or that they will face reprisal if they come forward. Victims might also feel shame, embarrassment, or think their own behaviour contributed to their assault.

Emma Halpern, executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia, hopes this class action will help change that.

“Part of why we’re doing this is to make it a little easier for individuals to come forward,” she said in an interview. “And that’s why we’re supporting this class action. And to get a sense, quite frankly, of the scope and magnitude of this problem, and then to pressure the system to address it.”

The Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (CAEFS) will provide support for victims by ensuring they can access therapy and counselling services throughout the legal process.

In a statement emailed to the Examiner on Thursday*, Isabelle Robitaille, a spokesperson for CSC, said the service can’t comment on the matter because it hasn’t served with the lawsuit.

On Monday, the Globe and Mail reported that CSC doesn’t keep data on employees who’ve been charged with sexual assault. In its annual report released in October 2020, the Office of the Correctional Investigator found that CSC lacked clear protocol for addressing incidents of sexual abuse, resulting in “a culture of silence and indifference.” In a news release issued on Monday, CAEFS called for a public inquiry into staff-to-prisoner sexual coercion, violence and abuse.

Robitaille said CSC tracks all employee cases of misconduct, and that the service will refine its data to more specifically track incidents involving sexual coercion and violence.

“Correctional Service Canada (CSC) takes allegations of sexual coercion and violence seriously and does not tolerate any breach of the law or CSC policies,” she wrote. “CSC employees are expected to carry out their duties with professionalism and consistently with the Services policies and mission – and of course, the law.”

Robitaille also wrote that the service’s current reporting system “contributes to safer institutions by identifying and responding to issues early and encouraging offenders to resolve conflicts in appropriate ways.”

CSC recently updated its policy that requires staff to report any criminal allegations, Robitaille said. She said the service will also develop a directive specific to sexual violence that will address “the reluctance of alleged victims to come forward in certain situations.”

Tessier hopes the class action will lead to better protection for inmates and more accountability in Canadian prisons.

“[Prisons] are not successful in helping people and addressing the issues that brought people there in the first place. All they do is cause more harm,” she said. “I want to make a change to that.”

Update: Friday, Mar. 12, 2021

This story has been updated to add comment from CSC.

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Ethan Lycan-Lang

Ethan Lycan-Lang is a Morning File regular, and also writes about environmental issues, poverty, justice, and the rights of the unhoused. He's currently on hiatus in the Yukon, writing for the Whitehorse...

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