Public Inquiry Needed to Address Sexualized Violence in Policing and Corrections System

*Originally published in Lawyer’s Daily on November 6, 2017 (edited to include links)

The integrity of Canada’s policing and corrections system has been called into disrepute from the sexualized violence committed by its police and corrections officers against Indigenous women and girls, female prisoners and even their own female colleagues.

Recently, officials at Edmonton’s maximum security prison suspended seven employees — including managers — for allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault. The male guards are now under investigation not only for the sexual harassment and assaults but also for their retaliatory actions against their female colleagues who tried to report the harassment. In some cases, it is alleged that protocols were breached risking the safety and security of the female prison guards including using inmates as weapons of intimidation.

While many would like to believe that this is an example of “a few bad apples,” the number of similar complaints across the country points to a much deeper problem in corrections. Earlier this year, in another maximum security prison in Agassiz, B.C., the sexual assault of a female prison guard by her male colleague was actually caught on camera. Far from an isolated incident, the union representing various locals in B.C. say they regularly assist female corrections employees in similar harassment cases.

The widespread sexually abusive actions by corrections officers is not limited to female colleagues. In 2012, prison guards at Ontario’s Grand Valley Institution for Women were accused of sexual abuse of female prisoners by trading tobacco and drugs for sexual acts. This was not news to the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC). The Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, which represents women and girls in the justice system, has filed many reports on such incidents calling for an external review and for the CSC to stop using male guards in women’s prisons.

Prison advocates also made calls for surveillance cameras in all institutions after surveillance videos captured numerous incidents of prison guards beating prisoners in Ontario and Quebec prisons in 2013. Several videos depict prisoners cowering in fear in what some lawyers have referred to as absolute “terrorism” committed by prison guards. The Office of the Correctional Investigator responded that not only that video surveillance procedures failed 70 per cent of the time, but that “it’s probably not a coincidence that some alleged prison beatings occur in spots where there’s no surveillance cameras.” The importance of surveillance cameras cannot be overstated. It was surveillance footage that showed Vancouver police dragging an unconscious Mi’kmaw man, Frank Paul, out of a jail cell and into an alleyway where he died of hypothermia in 1998.

Who are the arrested, detained, or imprisoned supposed to call when they have been beaten or sexually abused by corrections officers? There is a major power imbalance between corrections and prisoners, and the police are part of the same abusive system that protects its own before protecting those in their charge. The RCMP have been inundated with class actions and public complaints about their long-standing racism, sexism, abuse and harassment against the public and its own members.

Though not admitting any wrongdoing, this year, the RCMP recently settled a class action suit against it for the long-standing sexual harassment and assault of thousands of female RCMP members. In 2016, a second class action suit against the RCMP — this time male members — allege harassment and bullying. Also in 2016, another complaint alleges RCMP bullying and unwanted sexual touching and nudity at their own police college run by the RCMP in Ottawa. This is all on top of the 2014 report which documented hundreds of cases of corruption, involving hundreds of officers in the RCMP.

The deep-rooted problem of racism, sexism and abuse in policing and corrections is not new in the male-dominated system. The Royal Commission on Donald Marshall Jr.’s wrongful imprisonment highlighted police racism back in 1989. The 1991 Report of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry was instigated at the failure by police to properly investigate the sexual assault and murder of Indigenous woman Helen Betty Osborne and the police shooting of unarmed Indigenous leader J.J. Harper. The report highlighted the fact that the police do little to protect Indigenous peoples, especially women and girls.

The 2012 Missing Women Commission of Inquiry from B.C. found “blatant failures” and systemic bias against the victims and their families, many of whom were Indigenous. One of the most damning reports comes from Human Rights Watch in 2013 on abusive policing in B.C. which documented reports of RCMP physical and sexual abuse of Indigenous women and girls.

Both CSC and RCMP have both been implicated in the bullying, harassment, physical assaults, sexual assaults and/or deaths of female officers, female civilian employees, fellow male officers, male and female prisoners, and Indigenous women and girls. The class actions against the RCMP should have been a wakeup call for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale to take immediate remedial action. The 2017 CSC survey which reported that 40 per cent of CSC had been a victim of workplace harassment — 60 per cent of cases from their own CSC co-workers. The survey also showed that the problem is getting worse — having increased by over 30 per cent since 2014. Even the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal has noted that sexual harassment “continues to take place in organizations with a historical male dominance.”

The very fact that the terms of reference for the national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls excludes a review of police conduct is yet another example of the resistance of Canadian officials to address the problem. The knee-jerk reaction of governments to protect their police forces at all costs, may well cost them the loss of public confidence in policing and corrections.

The fact that the federal government chose a commissioner, Qajaq Robinson, for the national inquiry whose husband is a RCMP officer who pleaded guilty to beating Indigenous prisoners in 2009, begs the question as to whether PM Trudeau and his cabinet had any real intention of getting at the truth — which so far, all points directly at racism, sexism, abuse and corruption in policing and corrections.

One would have thought with a self-professed feminist prime minister and an experienced minister like Ralph Goodale, there would have been some immediate and substantive actions over the last two years since they took office. But, much like the perpetually absent Minister on the Status of Women Maryam Monsef — there are very few federal voices willing to tackle the monumental problem of racism, sexism, abuse and corruption in policing and corrections in Canada. It is hard to imagine a minister on the Status of Women as willfully blind on such high profile incidences of sexism and sexual abuse as Monsef.

When those entrusted to serve and protect serve only their own interests and abuse those in their care, the system will inevitably start to unravel — becoming a national crisis. Trudeau ought to use the revelations about sexual abuse in the Edmonton’s maximum security prison to dismantle this broken system of male dominance and sexualized violence in government institutions and restore public safety.  

*Link to the article originally published in Lawyer’s Daily on November 6, 2017: Please check out my a related video on my Youtube Channel:

One Comment

  1. Pamela, this is an incisive analysis that contributes so much to a deeper understanding of the racism, sexism and abuse endemic to Canada's criminal justice and penal systems. Also your indictment of the failings of the MMIW inquiry is spot on. Keep up the great work!

Comments are closed.