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Human Rights

Motion to Authorize Committee to Study Issues Relating to the Human Rights of Federally Sentenced Persons in the Correctional System and Refer Papers and Evidence from First Session of the Forty-Second Parliament to Current Session--Debate Adjourned

October 28, 2020

Pursuant to notice of October 2, 2020, moved:

That the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights be authorized to examine and report on issues relating to the human rights of federally sentenced persons in the correctional system, with reference to both national and international law and standards, as well as to examine the situation of marginalized or disadvantaged groups in federal prisons, including Black and Indigenous Peoples, racialized persons, women and those with mental health concerns, when and if the committee is formed;

That the papers and evidence received and taken and work accomplished by the committee on this subject during the First Session of the Forty-second Parliament be referred to the committee; and

That the committee submit its final report no later than June 30, 2021.

She said: Honourable senators, when Senator Munson rose in this chamber nearly four years ago to call on us to study violations of the human rights of those in federal prisons, he made things very clear. He said, “Something wrong is going on . . ..”

This summer, in the wake of far too many tragedies and travesties, the Black Lives Matter movement and Indigenous leaders called on Canada to redress centuries of colonialism and systemic racism. In addition, the vast majority of all prisoners and more than half of women in federal prisons are racialized.

Worse yet, during this pandemic, prisoners have been subjected to months of conditions that violate constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment and that are recognized internationally as amounting to torture.

Canada’s Charter enshrines guarantees of human rights for all. Yet, as revealed by the most recent reports from the Correctional Investigator and the chair of the ministerial advisory body set up to monitor the structured intervention units — which were supposed to replace solitary confinement and segregation — prisons continue to operate as if those guarantees end at the walls, and despite the laws being clear, that they cannot and do not penetrate those walls.

Canadians have a right to know what actions our government and state agencies are taking in our names and with our public resources. They also have a right to know when state agencies break the law and violate human rights. In the public interest and in the interest of public safety, we have a responsibility to investigate, expose and work to remedy breaches of the law and human rights.

Those whose human rights are violated in federal prisons face an incredibly difficult challenge to make their voices heard. As senators, we are among the few who have a statutory right of access. Along with rights come responsibilities. In this context, some 30 of us, as well as the members of the Human Rights Committee, have taken this responsibility seriously and have worked diligently to examine conditions of confinement and the human rights of federally sentenced persons.

Having consulted with many of you who participated in this study last Parliament, I am today urging us to ensure that we complete our work.

Over the course of more than two years, the committee heard from more than a hundred witnesses, visited 30 prisons across Canada, met with prisoners, staff, prison managers and administration, and issued an interim report.

The interim report documents deeply troubling accounts from prisoners, correctional staff, monitoring bodies and civil society representatives, of individual and systemic human rights violations. Significantly, these concerns were recurring throughout prisons and across all regions of the country.

The report notes:

The committee heard that access to health care is inadequate, admission to gradual and structured release is insufficient, correctional programming is deficient, conditions of confinement are poor, access to remedial measures is lacking and quality and quantity of food is severely substandard.

One overarching theme was that CSC policies often discriminate against Indigeneity, race, gender, disability, mental health, ethnicity, religion, age, language, sexual orientation and gender identity.

This happens particularly when it comes to two-spirited, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and questioning and queer folk.

Following the interim report, the committee further documented information regarding “marginalized and vulnerable groups, international standards, solitary confinement,” and other forms of segregation, “access to justice” issues, as well as “rehabilitation and reintegration.”

When Parliament rose for the federal election in 2019, the committee was at a stage where all that remained was to issue a final report. Unfortunately, because we were not granted leave to complete that work during the summer, that work remains unfinished.

While what is needed to complete this final report is minimal, the implications of not finishing the study are significant — years of resources invested and efforts undertaken in the name of Canadians, countless hours of expert testimony and stories entrusted to us by both staff members and prisoners alike, hoping and working for a system that upholds the rule of law and human rights.

Many people are waiting for the final report. Just this week, the committee’s work was featured in The Globe and Mail report on systemic racism associated with the Correctional Service of Canada’s security classification system.

The interim report has also informed our debates, particularly on Bill C-83. It has featured in presentations on human rights in Canada by committee members, as well as to international bodies including the Inter-Parliamentary Union and in countless other fora. We must finish, not abandon, this vital work.

This motion does not involve significant time or resources. In my humble view, all that would be needed would be to update the committee’s evidentiary record from the last Parliament, particularly to account for the implementation of Bill C-83 and the effects of COVID-19 in federal penitentiaries.

This would also allow the Senate to contribute to a conversation of national importance about how to redress systemic racism that, as Senator Bernard has noted, prisons both entrench and create.

As public attention is increasingly focused on the lack of correctional transparency and accountability, the committee could provide valuable information to Canadians via as few as two additional hearings.

We must pay close attention to the findings and experiences of an advisory panel appointed for one year by the Minister of Public Safety to monitor the implementation of the structured intervention units mandated by Bill C-83.

This week, the panel released an analysis of the Correctional Service of Canada data on isolation of prisoners and reported that the panel had been prevented, dear colleagues, by the Correctional Service of Canada from carrying out its mandate.

Colleagues, let us be clear about what this means. During this crucial period, with new internationally significant legislation, and during the pandemic, federal prisons are segregating prisoners with virtually no oversight.

Late last week, the ministerial advisers received some of the data they requested and it reveals a shocking reality that of all the individuals, only 5% of people placed in structured intervention units are receiving the meaningful human contact or time out of cell that Bill C-83 promised. A full 95% of people placed in structured intervention units are not receiving the meaningful human contact or time out of cell that Bill C-83 promised in order to prevent profoundly harmful and unconstitutional solitary confinement. This was indeed a reality well before COVID-19, but when the pandemic hit, this situation became far worse.

Rather than follow the direction of the minister or the advice of countless health professionals, CSC chose to default to the most oppressive approach. Not only did they cease all programs, services and supports, they unlawfully detained people who had been granted parole and institutional lockdowns resulted in virtually every person detained in a federal penitentiary being subject to segregation conditions akin to solitary confinement. All of this is despite the reality that Bill C-83 purported to eradicate such practices.

This widespread and seemingly unchecked use of conditions of isolation emphasizes that laws and human rights standards are not being followed and that means we should be considering Dr. Doob’s proposal for permanent external oversight of corrections. This is what the Senate proposed in its amendments to Bill C-83, a system of court oversight of decisions made by CSC that would affect prisoners’ rights — one of the amendments that hindsight suggests was erroneously rejected by the government.

Small wonder that CSC was reluctant to release the data. Small wonder that academics like Dr. Emma Cunliffe continued to urge judges to subject information generated by the correctional authorities to heightened scrutiny.

The interim report of the Human Rights Committee was a great first step and is replete with crucially important testimony. Colleagues, let’s finish the job and complete this vital study. Meegwetch. Thank you.

Hon. Pierrette Ringuette (The Hon. the Acting Speaker) [ - ]

Senator Pate, would you take a question?


Hon. Mobina S. B. Jaffer [ - ]

Senator Pate, thank you very much for all the work you and the committee have done on this issue. It would be very helpful for us to know how many years the committee spent on it and the amount of time you’re asking to finish the report. From what I heard, you were asking for a very short time for this very important report to be produced. Is that correct?

Thank you very much, Senator Jaffer. Yes, indeed. In December, it will be four years since Senator Munson moved that the study be conducted, and it was over two years that the committee worked on this study. Some other studies were worked on as well.

In my humble opinion, I estimate one or two sessions would be needed in order to update the evidence and then the report could be completed.

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