Wanda Thomas Bernard stands during a ceremony in the Senate on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa. The chairwoman of the Senate’s human rights committee says there is a need to deal with systemic, anti-black racism in Canada’s prisons and help inmates better transition into life after serving their sentence. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Canada must tackle racism in federal prisons, Senate committee hears

OTTAWA — Natalie Charles has almost completed her goal of becoming a paralegal, but she wants to do her job placement in a government office. The 39-year-old mother of two says a pardon from an almost two-decades-old conviction is standing in her way — and she’s not alone.

Charles’ testimony Wednesday to the Senate’s human rights committee highlighted something well known to the senators studying the federal correctional system: systemic and structural changes are needed to better allow former inmates to integrate with society.

Black Canadians make up 8.6 per cent of the population of federal prisons, even though they account for just three per cent of the overall Canadian population.

And while their numbers have declined alongside the overall prisoner population, the corrections watchdog’s most recent annual report found that black inmates were more likely to be in maximum security, placed in segregation and involved in violent incidents.

“One of the things that becomes really clear is that changes are needed on every level,” said Sen. Wanda Bernard Thomas, the Senate committee’s chairwoman.

“There are systemic and structural changes that are needed, but also individual problems that you can see at different places in the system and we need to have a commitment…to change and then change will happen.”

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called for action to ensure equal opportunity and treatment for the more than one million black Canadians, and Bernard says she expects the government to follow through on that message.

The special meeting Wednesday was called to look at the experiences of black female inmates as part of Black History Month. A second special meeting of the committee will be held at the end of February.

Incarcerated black women are behind bars primarily for drug offences.

Charles was one of two former inmates who talked about their experiences during an emotional two hours of testimony that included references to racial epitaphs hurled at black inmates, and the barriers inmates face to full employment upon release — particularly when they are asked about criminal records on job applications and apartment rental forms.

Even though she hasn’t been in trouble with the law for more than 15 years, the record is “like a cloud over my head that cannot seem to go away.”

Charles said she believes the government can make pardons easier for those who have given back to their community and are looking for work. She also spoke about the need for more community centres and after-school activities to keep children out of trouble in the first place.

Bernard said she has also heard suggestions for a federal directorate or office to liaise with black communities, similar to the ministry of African Nova Scotian Affairs.

Denise Edwards, another former federal inmate, suggested there is also a need to help judges understand the unique life experiences of black Canadians.

Edwards, currently a part-time student at the University of Toronto, said federal officials should also look at offering educational programs for older inmates before their release.

Just Posted

Ride to Conquer Cancer cancels but Red Deerian keeps going

Enbridge Ride to Conquer Cancer was cancelled due to smoke

Red Deer woman saving animals at wildlife centre with TV show

Victoria Bolhuis, 22, interned at Hope for Wildlife for 10 weeks before moving into paid position

Record-breaking year in Red Deer for smoke

Expect more smoke in Red Deer Wednesday

Mustard Seed prepares people for workforce

Employment Readiness Fair to be held August 28

Updated Red Deer smoke free bylaw to ban smoking cannabis in public

Smoke Free Bylaw returns to Red Deer city council Sept. 4

Kim XO is Black Press Media’s fashionista

Starting Sept. 7, stylist Kim XO will host Fashion Fridays on the Life channel on Black Press Media

Liberals unveil poverty plan with lofty goals, but no new spending programs

OTTAWA — The minister in charge of Canada’s latest national plan to… Continue reading

Case of truck driver charged in Humboldt Broncos crash adjourned until October

MELFORT, Sask. — The case of a Calgary truck driver charged in… Continue reading

Animal crackers break out of their cages

After more than a century behind bars, the beasts on boxes of… Continue reading

Alligator kills woman trying to protect her dog at resort

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. — A woman who often walked her dog… Continue reading

Patients redirected as water leak shuts down Edmonton hospital’s emergency room

EDMONTON — Ambulances are being redirected to other hospitals after a water… Continue reading

Parks Canada moves second bison bull that wandered out of Banff National Park

BANFF — Parks Canada says a second bison bull that wandered out… Continue reading

Lottery for parent sponsorship to be replaced, more applications to be accepted

OTTAWA — The Trudeau government is scrapping an unpopular lottery system for… Continue reading

Most Read

Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $185 for 260 issues (must live in delivery area to qualify) Unlimited Digital Access 99 cents for the first four weeks and then only $15 per month Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $15 a month