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

Tending the fields like a pioneer near Spruce View

Weekend of horse-drawn plowing, seeding and more at Double Tree Village Museum

Red Deer County tweaks animal control bylaw

Some residents complained earlier version of animal bylaw was too restrictive

PHOTO: Planting a colourful garden at Red Deer City Hall Park

Think you have a lot of yard work to do? This crew… Continue reading

Wheeliker to continue to impact Red Deer women’s shelter

New provincial role for Red Deer shelter executive

Redevelopment of downtown Red Deer wading pool on hold until 2022

Most other city water features already open

WATCH: Ellis Bird Farm open for summer

There is something magical about the Ellis Bird Farm located outside of… Continue reading

B.C.’s Horgan defends fight to both retain and restrict Alberta oil imports

YELLOWKNIFE — B.C. Premier John Horgan says he is fighting to both… Continue reading

Media are not an arm of the police, Vice lawyer tells Supreme Court hearing

OTTAWA — Journalists are not an investigative arm of the police, a… Continue reading

‘Knees-together’ judge can practise law again

Former judge Robin Camp allowed to practise law again: Law Society of Alberta

Photo: Roundabout action on 67th Street

Construction season is in full force

Alberta demands all-party support for pipeline at western premiers meeting

Leaders from western Canadian provinces, territories holding a morning meeting today in Yellowknife

Manitoba First Nation community trapped by smoke as fire creeps closer

WINNIPEG — Hundreds of people from a Manitoba First Nation are sitting… Continue reading

Watch: Julia Louis-Dreyfus to receive the 2018 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor

Julia Louis-Dreyfus is one of the most decorated actors in television history.… Continue reading

Pipeline decision too close to chastise B.C. at western premiers meeting: Notley

EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Rachel Notley says while other western premiers meeting… 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