I call this meeting to order. Welcome, everyone, to meeting number 27 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health. Pursuant to the order of reference of May 26, 2020, the committee is resuming its briefing on the Canadian response to the outbreak of the coronavirus.
To ensure an orderly meeting, I would like to outline a few rules to follow.
Interpretation in this video conference will work very much like in a regular committee meeting. You have the choice at the bottom of the screen of either floor, English or French.
As you are speaking, if you plan to alternate from one language to the other, you will need to also switch the interpretation channel so that it aligns with the language you are speaking. You might want to allow for a short pause when switching languages.
Before speaking, please wait until I recognize you by name. During questioning, the questioner will indicate to whom they want the question directed.
When you are ready to speak, you can click on the microphone icon to activate your mike.
As a reminder, all comments by members and witnesses should be addressed through the chair, and when you're not speaking, your mike should be on mute.
I now welcome our first panel of witnesses. From the Correctional Service of Canada, we have Ms. Anne Kelly, commissioner; Alain Tousignant, senior deputy commissioner; and Jennifer Wheatley, assistant commissioner, health services. As well, from the Parole Board of Canada, we have Sylvie Blanchet, executive vice-chairperson; and Daryl Churney, executive director general.
We will start with the Correctional Service of Canada. You have 10 minutes, please.
Good afternoon, Mr. Chair and members of the committee. We appreciate the opportunity to update you on the current status of COVID-19 cases in our institutions, before continuing with an overview of the Correctional Service of Canada's, or CSC's, testing approach and plans moving forward.
Mr. Chair, I am very pleased to be able to report that thanks to the tireless efforts of staff, and because of the exceptional measures taken, we have only one remaining active COVID-19 case among inmates across our 43 institutions.
Since the pandemic began, we have had outbreaks in five of our 43 institutions, with 360 inmates testing positive out of a total of 13,900 inmates. There are 357, or 99%, who have fully recovered. One inmate from the federal training centre in Quebec remains in hospital, but not in the intensive care unit, and we have had two deaths.
Of the five outbreaks, four are fully resolved, meaning that 28 days have elapsed since the last positive case. Our last outbreak at the federal training centre in Quebec will be declared over tomorrow, if there are no new cases. It is worth noting that we had no outbreaks in the Atlantic and the prairie regions, and the one in Ontario was limited to eight inmates in one institution.
Among CSC staff, out of 142 of our employees who have tested positive to date, 132, or 93%, have fully recovered.
I want to take this opportunity to recognize the extraordinary efforts made by our employees for their ongoing work under these exceptional and challenging circumstances.
From the outset of the pandemic, CSC took a proactive approach, guided by public health authorities and working closely with our union partners, to ensure the health and safety of staff and offenders in all of our institutions. When the pandemic was declared on March 11, we focused heavily on preventing the introduction of the virus in our institutions by quickly suspending visits from the public, temporary absences except when medically necessary, work releases and inter-regional transfers.
At the end of March, the virus was introduced into one of our facilities, and the goal became the prevention of its spread. Over time, that included measures such as strengthening infection and prevention control measures, and cleaning and disinfecting protocols; actively screening all staff at the front entrance; moving to unit-based staffing to prevent staff rotation throughout the institutions; training staff on donning and doffing PPE; limiting the movement of inmates; conducting daily wellness checks for signs of symptomatic inmates; immediately testing for COVID-19 anyone reporting symptoms; medically isolating, for 14 days, inmates with symptoms or who had tested positive for the virus, or who were being admitted to federal custody; working with local public health authorities to ensure inmates’ access to local hospital care, if required; issuing masks to staff, symptomatic and positive inmates, and then to all inmates; implementing our own tracing capability by training over 200 of our employees; and reconfiguring our CORCAN shops to produce disposable and washable masks and gowns.
CSC has also worked with the Public Health Agency and local health departments and community experts to have independent, expert-led reviews completed in all of its facilities. To date, all 43 of CSC’s institutions have had an infection prevention and control review or an environmental health review completed. The reviews acknowledge that COVID-19 is difficult to contain in closed environments and recognize the strong front-line leadership and the commitment of CSC staff to prevent and contain the spread of the virus.
There's also a reminder of the importance of training staff on donning and doffing PPE, having strong cleaning and disinfecting practices, and limiting the movement of staff and inmates to prevent spread. None of the findings are insurmountable but they will require continued focus to be sustainable in the months to come. Work is currently under way to ensure CSC is well positioned moving forward.
Now I'd like to speak briefly about CSC's testing strategy. First, health care staff actively screen and monitor all inmates for COVID-19 symptoms. As previously mentioned, CSC medically isolates inmates who are newly admitted to CSC or returning to CSC as a result of a suspension or revocation of their release, inmates who have symptoms or who have tested positive and their close contacts until medically cleared, and inmates who are released into the community from an institution in which there is an outbreak, on the recommendation of local public health.
With respect to staff, any employee who is symptomatic or who has tested positive as well as their close contacts must self-isolate for a minimum of 10 days including two consecutive days symptom-free. Currently, symptomatic inmates and staff get tested. Contact tracing is then completed and testing is offered to those in close contact. Inmates and staff who are at risk of contracting COVID-19 when there is an outbreak also get tested. Following any positive test, contact tracing is completed and testing is offered.
Moving forward, CSC will offer testing based on its recently expanded testing strategy. The strategy is responsive to CSC's closed environment, is well received by the unions and exceeds most, if not all, provincial testing strategies. In addition to the testing currently completed, the expanded testing strategy includes testing of all inmates at time of admission or return to federal custody. This is in addition to the 14-day medical isolation that will continue. It also includes testing of all inmates prior to their release into the community. Positive results will be reported to the local public health authorities and a plan jointly developed.
Finally, the expanded testing strategy also includes expanding the testing of staff and inmates in institutions located in areas where the rate of community transmission is elevated, which is called asymptomatic surveillance. For any positive tests, contact tracing will be completed and testing offered. The testing will be offered again over several weeks or months as long as communities in which the institutions are found continue to have elevated transmission. There are currently four areas in the Quebec region that have high rates of community transmission, and there are seven institutions located within those four areas. Testing has been offered to all staff working in the institutions in the Laval area.
CSC currently has sufficient capacity to test all symptomatic inmates, which it is currently doing. However, the expanded testing capacity will be achieved through partnerships. CSC has already begun reaching out to health partners to increase its capacity through MOUs with public health authorities as well as contracts with private labs. The strategy will be implemented in a phased approach over the next several weeks and months as MOUs and contracts are finalized. In order to prevent and contain the spread of COVID-19 in the months to come, especially as CSC starts easing some of the restrictions it has imposed, the expanded testing strategy will be of critical importance. Although the institutions were never closed, measures were taken to prevent and contain the spread of the virus. Visits were suspended and programming was curtailed.
To shape our new normal, I've put in place a governance structure made up of subject matter experts, union partners and senior managers from different sectors of CSC, including regional representatives. External stakeholders are also involved, including our citizens' advisory committee chair and non-governmental organizations. This approach allows us to examine what needs to resume and when, as well as the safeguards that need to be put in place. Our approach will be gradual, likely vary across different regions, and take into account public health advice.
As a first step, we would be looking at reinstating small group programming for inmates at some institutions, as this is key to their successful rehabilitation and to public safety.
In conclusion, as I say often, there is no greater responsibility than having the care and custody of other human beings. As commissioner, I appreciate the work of our staff, partners, stakeholders and volunteers for their amazing efforts during these extraordinary times.
Thank you, Mr. Chair and members of the committee. I'll be happy to respond to any questions you may have.
—and to make recommendations for the exercise of clemency through the royal prerogative of mercy.
The PBC consists of both GIC-appointed board members as well as public service employees who support them in their decision-making role. The PBC is a community board. We are, by law, to reflect the diversity of Canadian society. Our board members have diverse backgrounds spanning the fields of criminology, law, corrections, education, psychology, social work and the private sector, to name but a few.
Our conditional release program represents the majority of our work. In 2019-20, the Parole Board conducted 15,174 conditional release reviews. On a weekly basis, the PBC conducts an average of 281 federal reviews and renders a total of 407 federal decisions. These include reviews and decisions for temporary absences, day and full parole, post-suspension, detention and the varying of conditions for release.
In making conditional release decisions, the law requires the Parole Board to take into consideration all relevant available information related to an offender's case. Board members must consider and weigh information such as court and sentencing information, the nature and gravity of the offence and information obtained from victims, the offender and other components of the criminal justice system, including assessments provided by correctional authorities.
No single factor in a conditional release review is ever determinative in the PBC's decision-making. Public safety is the paramount consideration in all decisions and must be balanced against a rigorous risk assessment of the offender's ability to safely reintegrate into the community.
The board does not prepare offenders for release, nor does it manage or supervise offenders on release. That is the responsibility of the Correctional Service of Canada. The Parole Board's conditional release outcomes reflect the high quality of its decisions. Last year, 99% of day parole supervision periods and 98% of full parole supervision periods were not revoked for reoffending, and these numbers have remained consistent over the past 10 years.
I will turn my attention now to the Parole Board's operations and the measures we've taken during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the outset of COVID-19, the PBC has taken measures to protect the health and safety of the public, the offenders, its board members and staff while continuing to deliver its important public safety mandate. In doing so, we have been informed and guided throughout by the advice and recommendations of public health officials.
During this unprecedented period, the PBC has streamlined its operation to focus on core functions in the areas of conditional release decisions, operations and appeals, pardons and record suspensions, board member appointments and essential internal services. These core functions are primarily being delivered by board members and staff working remotely and by a small number of board members, executives, managers and critical staff working in PBC offices while practising social distancing.
Parole hearings are being conducted remotely via video conference or teleconference, as applicable, outside of correctional institutions. The PBC has also worked to streamline its processes and has modified some of its policies to provide additional flexibility to CSC and community—
Sure. Thank you very much.
Parole hearings are being conducted remotely via video conference or teleconference, as applicable, outside correctional institutions. The PBC has also worked to streamline its processes and has modified some of its policies to provide additional flexibility to CSC and community partners. For example, for offenders already in the community on day parole who become eligible for full parole, the PBC has implemented efficiencies to expedite those decisions by proceeding by way of paper review.
The PBC has also amended its policy to allow Correctional Services Canada to authorize emergency medical leave privileges for offenders residing in the community for up to 30 days rather than the current maximum of 15 days.
The PBC also continues to process parole-by-exception cases as expeditiously as possible. Parole by exception is a mechanism in law to permit parole consideration for offenders who have not yet reached their parole eligibility date, in exceptional circumstances including for offenders who are terminally ill or whose physical or mental health is likely to suffer damage if the offender continues to be held in confinement. Since March 1, 2020, seven parole-by-exception cases have been granted. There are currently 33 pending decisions. In comparison, only four parole-by-exception cases were granted in all of last year.
The PBC is also working with CSC to better accommodate the circumstances of offenders during the pandemic, such as imposing a condition to reside in a home or family environment where such placement is risk appropriate rather than in a community-based residential facility. Since March 1, we have been making an average of 11 day-parole-to-other-location decisions per week compared to five per week in 2019-20.
Further, the PBC has worked closely with CSC to review cases in which offenders residing in community-based residential facilities may have had their residency condition change to specify another location such as a family home. Since March 1, 2020, we have been averaging seven such decisions per week compared to an average of one decision per week last year.
Given the current restrictions due to COVID-19, the deadline for an offender to submit an appeal to the appeals division has been extended from two months to three months in order to assist the offenders in preparing their appeal, especially if they need to seek the support of outside resources. In accordance with the CCRA, offenders have the right to an assistant at their hearing. We have been able to facilitate participation of offender assistance remotely by teleconference.
The PBC remains committed to ensuring that victims' voices are heard during this unprecedented situation and that they continue to receive all legislated information to which they are entitled. The PBC has implemented technological and procedural enhancements, as an interim measure, in order to provide victims the ability to participate at PBC hearings via telephone and to have their victim statement considered by board members. Because our hearings are being held remotely, this means that a typical hearing can have six or more individuals connected from different locations. For victims who prefer not to attend a hearing, the PBC continues to accept victim statements in various formats including audio and video recording.
In these unprecedented times, the PBC has taken measures to ensure that it continues to deliver its important safety mandate under extraordinary circumstances. I am extremely proud of the resilience and commitment demonstrated by our board members and staff in the face of these challenges.
On a final note, I would also like to invite committee members interested in attending a full hearing, once we are back to conducting in-person hearings, to get in touch with us and we would be happy to facilitate that.
Mr. Chair, the Conservatives have already tried to tarnish my reputation once. I won't accept, in front of witnesses who are waiting to appear, the insinuation that I'm making an amendment because I don't want to work.
I'm asking Mr. Jeneroux to retract his comments immediately. His comments are disgraceful. It's pointless to make these types of comments, which show a lack of respect for his colleagues. I said earlier why I wanted to delete the words. Since Mr. Fisher said that he agreed with me, does this mean that he doesn't want to work either?
I explained that this was strictly related to the series of motions moved and that we had to be able to finish our work and process the information. I speak from experience. I've made access to information requests in the past. Following these requests, I've drowned in a sea of completely irrelevant documents. I don't see the relevance of the text messages related to the first proposal, which was blocked several months ago. We can determine this during the debate based on the arguments.
I'm asking Mr. Jeneroux to show respect for his colleagues. I work and I'm known for being hard-working. I'd like him to retract his comments and insinuations, which once again seek to tarnish my reputation. The Conservatives were disgraceful last time, and they didn't even apologize. Yet three weeks later, they proposed the same thing.
Can we have a calm and substantive debate instead of ascribing motives to the individuals moving amendments?
Mr. Chair, I urge you to handle this properly, because this time it won't fly.
Mr. Chair, I support the amendment as well, and I can give you a very classic example.
In the last week, in one day, I received as many as 91 emails. It took me most of the day to get those 91 emails down to 21.
If we start to look at an issue as broad as this one, I simply can't imagine the number of emails that will be clouding the issue. I think we need to maintain our focus on information that is relevant, and not necessarily dilute the value of the information by overloading it with other information, which can all be gathered and could be sifted through in the documentation that this motion requests.
One minor change is that if we are going to be deleting “and emails”, we should add the word “and” in front of the word “motions”. I don't know whether or not that needs another motion—I'm not as familiar with parliamentary process as many of us are—but I think that would have to be a consideration as well.
I will leave it to you, Mr. Chair, to decide on that.
I do want to say that what's being proposed here, to eliminate the emails, is a very legitimate request. I think it's putting an unfair and heavy burden of reporting on people who should be focusing on doing the right things during this current emergency.
We have a pandemic in front of us, ladies and gentlemen, and therefore, we should not be overloading the system. We should respect the time and the energy of all the people who are working on this. I think removing the emails is a significant step in doing so.
Mr. Chair, I think there have been some points made on both sides of this. I have noted the pattern where generally opposition wants more disclosure and government seeks to limit disclosure, and I see that pattern repeating itself here today.
I'm going to support the amendment only because if the disclosure of information that we get is not sufficient, I think it's open to Mr. Kitchen or Mr. Paul-Hus to move another motion requesting the emails. I don't find it persuasive to.... This is the second or third time I've heard the government side argue that it's too onerous to provide emails. Disclosure and accountability are foundational concepts, and I believe Mr. has famously said that his government should be “transparent by default”. That's what he told the Canadian public.
Just because it's difficult or just because it's onerous to get emails, that's not a sufficient reason to override the need for transparency. I also think that with emails what's behind my Conservative colleague's motion is that there's a degree of frankness, granularity and detail that is usually found in emails that is not found in other documents. In supporting this motion to move this meeting forward, that in no way doesn't mean I don't think the emails are a valid source of information, and we could be pursuing those later on.
I do want to comment, and ask the clerk to comment, on redaction. When this committee passed a motion before for disclosure from the government, in my opinion, we had illegitimate and, frankly, I thought unjustifiable redactions by the government. I want to make sure that the documents being sought here come in unredacted form, and that it's the clerk of this committee who will determine if anything ought to be redacted or not.
Last time, I think the privileges of these committee members, of us, were violated when we received documents that someone else, prior to sending them to us, had redacted for all sorts of reasons, many of which were way beyond the grounds that are normally given for redaction. If we're going to hold the government to account—and I think it's a good motion on behalf of my colleague to do so, particularly when the border is affecting so many Canadians in so many ways, both on an economic and a personal level—then I want this committee to get the unvarnished information we seek. I want to be very clear that I'll be looking for documents that are not sanitized to protect the government's political interests like they were last time.
Finally, I want to say that I don't find emails to be that difficult to get. There are search functions that exist in our computers, such that if a particular individual were asked to provide all emails that bore on the subject of border controls, I would point out to Mr. Van Bynen that it's a simple matter to use search functions to produce those documents. In fact, because emails are, by definition, stored on computers, it's actually very quick and easy to produce documents by email, so that is not an argument that I find persuasive.
To move this forward, I think we should have the vote on this. I'll support Monsieur Thériault's amendment to remove emails at this point, on the proviso that I reserve the right to pursue those emails later on if we find that the documents that are produced to the committee are not sufficient for the purposes of my Conservative colleagues.
Again, to speak to Mr. Kelloway's amendment, which is “not later than August 31”, if possible, of course, we could get the documents sooner. I think that's important to make sure we all understand that.
Our goal is to get the very best information we possibly can. We know that many other committees are also looking at similar motions in terms of production of documents. Though, of course, this is important work to be done, I think we want quality, thoroughness, in the name of truly understanding what the government's response has been, and obviously planning to look to the future. I'm sure we all hope we could open that border as soon as is feasible.
However, as Dr. Powlowski said previously, it is a very delicate issue, obviously in terms of the trade involved that's so important to both our economies, but also, of course, to the health of the population and not being sure of what exactly is happening to the south of us at any one time, from so many different states and so on.
I think what we're after is production...that is transparent, that is full and of good quality. I think the timing as proposed in Mr. Kelloway's amendment makes a great deal of sense.
I support the August 10 date. I really am flabbergasted that anybody would think it would take two and a half months to produce this documentation. It's June 15. We don't need to go until August 31. Frankly, I think the documents could be produced much sooner than August 10 as well.
In some ways, it's arbitrary. We're just picking dates here, but if Mr. Kitchen's motion was that he wants documents by August 10, then I think we should respect that. Whether it's August 1 or August 15, none of us has any basis for determining if that's enough time or not. I think we should respect the intent of the original motion and, as Mr. Van Bynen said, obviously by picking a cut-off date we are limiting what's going to come after that. Mr. Kitchen must have recognized that in his motion. There's no bureaucratic reason that we can't have these documents prepared in the next two months. I'm going to support the motion as August 10.
I also want to reiterate again that responsible government requires oversight by democratically elected politicians. I'm getting concerned at this repeated point and argument being made that by requesting disclosure for us to carry out our obligation to oversee the civil service, or oversee the behaviour and response of government, we somehow are derogating or taking away from the government's ability to deal with the pandemic. The government can chew gum and walk at the same time. I haven't heard any member of this government say that transparency and accountability are not possible right now because they're too busy dealing with the pandemic.
I want to in the strongest terms possible indicate my opposition to this false dichotomy between taking away our civil servants' ability, somehow, to deal with the pandemic and discharging our responsibility to have parliamentary oversight. This is a minority government we're in right now. No party enjoys the majority support of the House of Commons. I think it's unfair to suggest that by us as parliamentarians discharging our duties, as this motion seeks to do for transparency and accountability, somehow we are harming the government's ability to deal with the pandemic. There's not a shred of evidence of that and it doesn't pass muster.
I'm going to support the motion as is and suggest that we move on to the vote. We've already lost one panel. That's fine, by the way. I want to also say that committee members have the right to move motions at committee, and it's unfortunate that sometimes it happens when we're in the middle of a study, but I'm also a bit troubled when people apologize to witnesses as if what we're doing here is somehow inappropriate. This is the only time we have to move motions—during committee meetings—and it's a totally appropriate use of our committee time to do so.
Unfortunately, it does take away from witness time, but since we have witnesses scheduled at every meeting, there's no other time for us to do this. I respect my colleagues' right to move motions and I respect the right to debate them, but I think we've heard a lot about this motion already and I would hope that we could move to vote on it as soon as we can.
I think Don made some very good comments there, as did Mr. Thériault. If the 10th is arbitrary and the 31st is arbitrary, my personal belief is that I want our public servants working on the matter in front of them—the pandemic.
Mr. Van Bynen talked about in one day getting 91 emails; that's as an MP. In our office, if you add up the emails that come in with our various accounts, it's several hundred a day. Imagine those public servants having to.... Maybe Don is right. Maybe they don't have to stop their work. Maybe they can walk and chew gum at the same time. However, the important job here right now is taking care of Canadians during this pandemic and providing good advice.
Yes, the 10th and the 31st could be very arbitrary, and again, we have the “no later than” in this amendment, so I would suggest that we consider supporting the 30th and no later than the 31st and we give these public servants the time they need to focus on their jobs, on what they're tasked with doing every single day.
Don's right. We're probably at the end of the debate on this. Again, I want to thank him for his comments. This is the important stuff. This is the only time we get a chance to get together and hammer these things out. We are in a minority and we are finding ways. This committee has done a very good job since we formed. We were the first committee that formed and we've been able to get together, figure things out and make things work pretty well. Maybe there's a bump in the road every now and again, but I think what we've got on this committee is a group of MPs who really do want to get to the same place, maybe not exactly in the same way.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
I would like to propose the following amendment. I would like to add, after “August 10, 2020” the words “provided that the department does its assessment and vetting in gathering and releasing the documents as it would be done through the access to information process”.
This amendment has been added to several of the other committees when they've done motions just like this. moved in AGRI on Friday, June 5:
That, given the Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food’s written response to M.P. Philip Lawrence’s question on the cost of the carbon tax to the agriculture industry, in which their analysis and estimates do not reflect the federal backstop, the committee send for a copy of all reports, briefing notes, memorandums, emails and documents related to the federal carbon tax and its cost, directly or indirectly, to the agriculture industry, to be provided in both official languages by Saturday, August 1, 2020, provided that the Department does its assessment and vetting in gathering and releasing the documents as it would be done through the access to information process.
This was done also in several other motions. I'm not sure if you want me to read them all into the record, but Mr. Barlow moved them in two or three different motions. moved:
That, in the context of its study of the government’s response to the COVID-19 Pandemic and pursuant to Standing Order 108(1)(a), the committee send for the following documents to be provided by the government by Monday, August 3, 2020 and that the documents be published publicly on the committee’s website by Monday, August 10, 2020 and that departments tasked with gathering and releasing the following documents do their assessment and vetting as would be done through the access to information process:
I've got several more here, Mr. Chair. It seems that is the way most of the motions have gone, both in English and French, from Madam Block and Mr. Barlow as well. So I would suggest that we tag that on to the end of this motion as well.
So moved. Thank you, Mr. Chair.
We have a hard cap at the top of the hour, so it's likely we'll get statements and maybe an abbreviated first round.
Having said that, I will introduce our panel of witness.
From the Native Counselling Services of Alberta, we have Ms. Marlene Orr. From the John Howard Society of Canada, we have Ms. Catherine Latimer. From the Union of Safety and Justice Employees, we have Mr. Stanley Stapleton and Mr. David Neufeld.
Thank you all for coming. We were delayed with committee business, but we'll try to give everything our full attention.
The Native Counselling Services of Alberta, please go ahead. You have time for a 10-minute statement, but if you can abbreviate it at all, that would be appreciated.
The John Howard Society of Canada is a charity committed to just, effective and humane criminal justice systems. I am grateful for the committee’s invitation to share our concerns about the response to the outbreak of coronavirus in Canada. For many Canadians, the pandemic has caused fear and significant disruption to our lives. For others, it has had tragic consequences, and we send our condolences to all those who have lost friends and family to this disease.
The federal government has direct responsibility for prisoners in its care, and the impact of the coronavirus on the federal prisons has been profound. Two people have died, more than 360 people have been sickened, and five institutions have been contaminated. The rate of infection was assessed at 13 times the rate in the general population.
According to the correctional investigator’s April 23 release, 400 prisoners were held in medical isolation in extreme conditions that violated their rights. Hundreds more are locked down in their cells for 22-hours a day, with inadequate meaningful human contact, which is inconsistent with the UN definition of solitary confinement and its prohibition. Prisoners protesting the conditions were met with force in some cases, resulting in prisoners having to seek medical assistance outside of the prison. Visits with family and volunteers were cancelled, and chaplaincy services were suspended, all of which increased feelings of isolation. Programs and opportunities to make progress on correctional plans were suspended, leading to increased feelings of hopelessness and frustration.
We are experiencing the worst crisis in Canadian corrections since the Kingston Penitentiary riots almost 50 years ago. The tragedy is that we were forewarned by epidemiologists and other medical experts about the amplifying effect that prisons have on the virus. The medical and human rights advice was to remove as many people from prisons as possible and give the remainder a chance, through prevention, by permitting social distancing.
As soon as the pandemic was labelled as such in mid-March, there were calls on the federal government to safely release prisoners. These were ignored. The first two prisoners at Port-Cartier tested positive on March 30. On March 31, asked CSC and the Parole Board of Canada to consider ways to expedite releases. Other more expeditious measures, like respites under the Governor General’s clemency authority, were not considered.
While other jurisdictions and provinces released hundreds and thousands of prisoners following the advice of medical experts, Canada did not. Canada has duties to prisoners. Section 215 of the Criminal Code provides that those who are detaining individuals have a legal duty to provide the necessaries of life to those under their charge and could be criminally liable if they, without lawful excuse, fail to discharge that duty and it endangers the life of the prisoner or his or her health in a permanent manner.
The Corrections and Conditional Release Act obligates the service to provide essential health care and reasonable access to non-essential health care that conform to professionally accepted standards. A core purpose of the correctional system, as set out in the CCRA, is to carrying out sentences in a “safe and humane” manner. CSC is required to use the least restrictive measure consistent with the protection of society, staff members and offenders.
The World Health Organization and other international bodies released a joint statement about how COVID-19 should be managed in prisons. Among other things, it stated that COVID-19 responses in prisons must respect the human rights of people deprived of their liberty, and the disruptive impact of restrictions should be actively mitigated. It provided that any intervention should comply with the UN's standards for the treatment of prisoners, the Nelson Mandela Rules. Those rules define solitary confinement as “22 hours or more” in cells “without meaningful human contact”, and prohibit prolonged solitary confinement, 15 days or more, which is understood as a form of cruel treatment. Canadian courts have recently recognized the harm that such isolated confinement can cause and have found charter violations.
There are hundreds of prisoners who have experienced isolated confinement for well over 15 consecutive days as a response to the COVID-19 virus. Many would like to see an in-depth, independent inquiry into the government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis in our federal prisons to assess whether obligations were met, how people died and became ill, both from the virus and the strict isolation imposed in response to it, and to assess what should be done in future for a second wave or another pandemic.
Based on the concerns I heard from prisoners and their families, the inquiry could provide much-needed answers. In the interest of time, I will give you categories rather than go into the issues raised by the prisoners and their families. Those include issues associated with the prevention of the disease from getting into the prison, dealing with the infected prisoners once the prisons were contaminated, dealing with the other prisoners, and reopening the prisons and bringing back some of the strict measures that had been put aside during the pandemic.
In conclusion, individuals in our federal prisons have suffered as a result of the government's response to the coronavirus. It is questionable whether the duties and obligations to prisoners have been met during this period. I hope this committee will recommend that an in-depth, independent inquiry be held to examine and learn from this crisis during which the physical and mental health of our prisoners were imperiled and their rights disregarded.
Thank you so much.
Good afternoon. My name is Stan Stapleton. I am the national president of the Union of Safety and Justice Employees, also known as USJE. As a national organization representing employees working on the front lines of the pandemic, I am immensely appreciative of the opportunity to be here with my colleague David Neufeld, who is the national vice-president.
USJE represents over 16,000 federal public service employees who work for 18 federal departments and agencies in a safety or justice capacity. However, the largest number of our employees work for the Correctional Service of Canada.
Unlike the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, UCCO, which plays a security function at federal penitentiaries, USJE represents a diverse range of employees with crucial rehabilitative and administrative functions. These include food service officers, parole and program officers, teachers, managers of assessment and intervention, facilities and maintenance crew, and licensed practical nurses. Hundreds of federal parole officers and case management teams from coast to coast oversee the reintegration of federal offenders. Their job is to ensure that federal offenders across the country adhere to their supervision plans and are not at risk of reoffending.
I will be very honest with you. When COVID-19 hit, I do not believe we were prepared. Whatever pandemic protocols may have been in place were not immediately applied within CSC. On March 18 I wrote a letter to Commissioner Anne Kelly, appealing to her to immediately implement proactive measures to minimize the spread of COVID in federal prisons and contain the footprint in the community. We needed CSC to do what was effectively being done in Canada's long-term homes—namely, heavily control who was coming in and out of federal penitentiaries; significantly increase cleaning and sanitization protocols; ensure appropriate use of PPE, and encourage face coverings within; begin widespread testing; stop employees from working at multiple sites; and isolate presumptive cases among employees or offenders.
For several weeks, we found that new protocols were not always applied consistently. For example, there was limited access to testing and PPE, sanitization was inadequate, employees were moving between sites, food delivery within affected prisons was presenting opportunities for further infection, and there were not enough laptops to enable work from home. Quite frankly, when considering the living and working conditions at CSC during this pandemic, it is remarkable that major outbreaks were contained to five federal sites and two deaths. Although extremely unfortunate, it could have been much worse.
USJE's senior leaders worked around the clock for several weeks to highlight the challenges, gaps, oversights and opportunities to do things better when it came to COVID. One could say we were relatively lucky this time. However, many CSC employees working at full capacity and under enormous stress during the past few months would not view the situation so favourably.
Thankfully, at this stage CSC and its union partners are in a much better place. This is in part because of the creation of a joint transition task force established by CSC, USJE and other labour partners. The task force is something that USJE called for in order to keep employees and offenders safe. The work of this task force has been very encouraging in terms of the level of respect and engagement. We commend Bev Arsenault's leadership with this task force. I believe it could represent a new direction in how CSC treats its labour partners, who have first-hand knowledge of the challenges on the ground.
I will now turn it over to my colleague David Neufeld.
As we begin to enter a reset phase of this pandemic, it is imperative that USJE work very closely with CSC and other stakeholders to, first, critically evaluate the effectiveness of the protocols put in place because of COVID-19 and determine what could be done better and how, and second, assess what is needed in this new normal environment for operations to continue efficiently and safely while also beginning to prepare immediately for future waves and challenges. To do so, we have identified the following recommendations.
First, USJE is encouraged to seek greater collaboration between our organization and CSC. This meaningful joint work is already yielding positive outcomes for employees, offenders, institutions and facilities as a whole. USJE is committed to working closely with all stakeholders to ensure we take the time to critically reflect on the past few months as well as to act now to mitigate the impacts of potential future pandemics. We believe the work of the task force must continue for a minimum of one year, until this pandemic is safely behind us.
Second, from the onset, safety measures must meaningfully take into account input from front-line employees who work within the institutions, community corrections centres and community parole offices. In the early days, USJE members across the country reported immense frustration in having their feedback disregarded by CSC management. Many felt that the lives of offenders and employees were on the line, especially in outbreak sites, where hundreds of offenders became ill. Our members are often the people who will be putting the new protocols into place, so their buy-in is absolutely paramount. No one understands operational considerations better than those who see their impacts daily. Their input matters a great deal and needs to be treated with respect.
Third, for service levels to continue at their pre-pandemic standards, more resources—especially human resources—will be required. Many CSC employees have adapted their work to be in line with social distancing and other COVID-19 requirements. For example, a CSC program officer in the community who is in charge of delivering a weekly rehabilitation program to a group of 10 offenders now has to meet individually with each one every week through video conference or teleconference. Not only will this require far more time to accomplish, but it means that each offender must have access to a smartphone or device, a reliable Internet connection and a quiet place to speak with the instructor. Sufficient human resources are imperative to maintaining the required frequency of contact with offenders. Meaningful frequency of contact is absolutely critical to ensuring proper supervision and rehabilitation, as well as public safety. For some, COVID-19 has only worsened workload issues and stress levels, given the realities of working differently.
Fourth, sanitation processes must be improved. COVID-19 has forced us to take a much closer look at cleaning protocols within CSC. CSC has just recently committed to the Public Health Agency of Canada standard. Over the past few months, employees have worked hard to contribute to enhanced cleaning efforts, even if it was not part of their official duties. However, the current practice of relying on a small number of offenders to do the majority of sanitization in very large penitentiaries, with little or no training in pandemic standards, is irresponsible. Contracting these critical tasks to outside agencies with highly transient employees is also not the answer. Using outside cleaning contractors who enter a number of sites increases the chances of spreading the virus between institutions. We witnessed this during the outbreak in Mission Institution in B.C., where cleaners were going between two different penitentiaries during the same week. Additionally, interview rooms for multiple staff to meet offenders in federal prisons are often extremely small and not cleaned regularly. CSC penitentiaries and CCCs carry the same risk as Canada's long-term care homes. We urge CSC to hire full-time properly trained cleaning professionals in each institution, community parole office and community correctional centre.
Last, in terms of the community footprint, community parole officers and case management teams have significantly decreased their footprint and have reduced community contagion through delivery of programs by telephone or video. They are also providing supervision by reducing the number of times an offender travels to a community parole office or by meeting with the offender in the community at a safe distance. In many instances, case management teams can effectively work from home.
In light of the prospect of a second wave, USJE strongly recommends no meaningful change to this modified approach to overseeing offenders in the community until Canada is confident that we are past a second wave.
In closing, we urge committee members to consider how the federal government can assist the federal correctional system with proper resources to maintain this new normal. Additional human resources, a contained footprint and more robust cleaning practices are imperative to keeping offenders, employees and Canadians safe. The federal government must also ensure that public health agencies throughout Canada offer widespread testing to offenders and employees. CSC must continue to foster ongoing collaboration with its labour partners and front-line employees.
Thank you for your time. We are pleased to answer any of your questions.
Good afternoon, Mr. Chairperson and members of Parliament.
I am honoured to speak to you today. My name is Marlene Orr, and I am speaking to you from Treaty 6 territory. As a member of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation in Treaty 6, I am especially proud to acknowledge the traditional territory of my people.
I am the director of corrections for Native Counselling Services of Alberta, a not-for-profit that, for over fifty years, has provided and continues to provide programs and services for indigenous people in conflict with the law. Native Counselling Services of Alberta runs the largest healing lodge for male federal offenders in Canada and the first section 81 healing lodge for female federal offenders.
Healing lodges are minimum-security federal institutions, in which the care and custody of minimum-security indigenous federal offenders is transferred to the indigenous community under the Corrections and Conditional Release Act. Focusing on indigenous culture and ceremony, section 81 healing lodges work to reintegrate indigenous federal offenders into the community using an indigenous world view. Our healing lodges are better equipped to deal with indigenous offenders than are Correctional Service Canada or their other partners because we understand historic trauma. We take guidance from our elders on how we should address those issues of trauma and the relationship those issues have to criminal activity. We are better at the reintegration of indigenous federal offenders than are Correctional Service Canada. Section 81 healing lodges are the face of reconciliation and indigenous reintegration for federal corrections.
Today I will speak about the impacts of COVID-19 on indigenous people in general and on indigenous offenders and service providers in particular. It's important to understand the wider impacts so that we can understand the impact on offenders.
Since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings and calls to action, we've become better informed regarding the social issues seen in the indigenous community and the direct link those issues have to historic trauma. We understand that the myriad impacts, such as loss of culture, fragmented families, lack of parenting models, addictions, poverty and violence in all forms, are directly tied to legislation in Canada that sought to strip indigenous people of their very cultural and legal identity in order to have access to their lands.
The onset of COVID-19 left us all unprepared for the upheaval in day-to-day life. Rapidly changing government and corporate policies left us in fear, anxiety and isolation for months. The impact was widely felt amongst Canadians but particularly amongst indigenous people and communities, who still struggle with poverty and other historic trauma impacts.
With the measures put in place by Canada, the provinces, municipalities and first nations communities, mental health concerns and loneliness have added increased stress. The impact on our communities, where the intergenerational effects continue, has exacerbated existing mental health concerns for indigenous people, perhaps to a greater degree than for others. Unresolved issues of trauma have surfaced and have been magnified. Lack of access to the cultural and spiritual community have left many indigenous people unable to cope with their emotional and mental health challenges without supports. That is especially true for indigenous offenders in institutions.
As restrictions ease, the use of masks and gloves has been stressed by provincial and federal authorities. With many provinces moving into relaunch, the use of masks will become increasingly necessary for people to access services. For example, in Alberta, persons attending court are required to wear masks, yet no masks are supplied by government agencies. Given the level of poverty many indigenous people experience, they are not likely to have the resources to purchase this protective equipment. Many indigenous not-for-profits are expected to bear the cost of providing this.
Very early on in the pandemic, schools closed down, and the expectation was that classrooms would move online. Students were expected to continue their studies while isolating. While laudable, these efforts come from a very privileged perspective.
According to the Canadian Poverty Institute, indigenous peoples in Canada experience the highest levels of poverty. A shocking one in four indigenous peoples are living in poverty. Speaking from lived experience, I can assure you that luxuries like electronic devices and Wi-Fi or phone data are not financially attainable for those in poverty.
This need for devices and data to stay connected became an issue for us as well. The online supports necessary for marginalized people excluded indigenous people because of their lack of access to connectivity. As we've seen here today, those are issues that our organization faces providing services out of a federal building.
Funders forced many organizations to bear the real cost of setting up online services and, when you consider that many indigenous people are too poor to stay connected virtually, it does not really make sense. Many indigenous communities have connectivity issues because of the lack of quality internet within their communities. One example is a Métis settlement in Alberta, where the Wi-Fi services do not extend beyond the governance office because of lack of internet infrastructure in their remote community.
This lack of connectivity was felt by us as well. At the very start of the pandemic, corrections staff were ordered to work from home, using Correctional Service Canada laptops to remain connected to the offender management system. Staff were kept safe and supported by corrections supplying them the equipment necessary to do their jobs in isolation.
Indigenous community partners in corrections didn't have the same assets and, as a result, couldn't work from home. Healing lodge staff had to go to work daily and risk exposing themselves and offenders in a residential facility. Despite numerous requests for laptops and connectivity, the two healing lodges I oversee were not provided with them. We were told by CSC that there was no equipment available, yet we received reports that approximately 20,000 laptops were purchased during the pandemic by CSC and are sitting stockpiled in Ottawa. The unspoken message is that the government is concerned about the safety of its staff, but not concerned about the safety of its indigenous partners.
While corrections staff were working at home, some of their responsibilities were deemed too unsafe for them to undertake. One example is the urinalysis testing performed on inmates and conditionally released offenders. This responsibility was devolved to my staff because, apparently, the task is not unsafe for indigenous people.
One of our healing lodges is in this old federal building. CSC is responsible for the maintenance. We had an electrical fire that burned out our entire camera security system. Correctional maintenance staff refused to enter our building, even though we implemented precautions long before CSC did. We were left to deal with that on our own.
CSC was slow to implement a COVID-19 response. We couldn't get answers to questions we had about policy, practice or testing. As our healing lodges are also, in part, community residential facilities, we have both inmates and conditionally released offenders. We were the only Alberta-based community residential facility that has remained open during the pandemic. We implemented policies around COVID-19 weeks before CSC did, and we continued to accept offenders released from the federal institution.
Our policies included a requirement for institutional health care to attest that offenders being released were COVID-free, or at least symptom-free. For three solid weeks institutional and community parole staff were dismissive of our policy and fought us on every transfer case. We asked that they attest that the transfer of released offenders occurred in a CSC vehicle that had been sanitized after the previous use. For three weeks, every federal institution we received released offenders from fought my staff about this. This speaks to the lack of pandemic policies and practices within CSC. It also speaks to the lack of health and safety practices in general.
The pandemic exposed cracks in the relationships among CSC, the indigenous community and community partners.
With tremendous political pressure mounting, CSC and the Parole Board rushed to depopulate the prisons for fear of COVID-19 spreading. In this rush there was little understanding of the reality of how this would affect indigenous people in communities. The rush to depopulate was a rush towards displacement and increased risk of offender exposure to the virus and to poverty.
It is well documented that my people are predisposed to a number of health issues like diabetes, tuberculosis and respiratory issues. Because of this, indigenous people in our communities are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, and the risks of contracting the virus are much greater in the presence of these health concerns. This led to first nations taking unprecedented steps to safeguard their communities by locking down their borders and restricting access to those who did not live in the community. The increased cost of implementing security and ensuring food sovereignty has been enormous and a challenge for our communities.
If you did not live in the community when the pandemic hit, you were not likely allowed to go there. CSC did not have the relationship with indigenous communities to fully understand the impact of releasing indigenous offenders to closed communities.