British ColumbiaGO PUBLIC

'I'm not signing it': Correctional officer says superiors tried to buy her silence after week of 'hazing'

Commissioner of Corrections Canada expresses 'sincere regret' for ERT training experience

Erica Johnson - CBC News

November 06, 2017

Buying Silence  3:50

A B.C. correctional officer says superiors tried to buy her silence by offering her a plum job in exchange for signing a "gag order" that would prevent her from discussing settlement details after a controversial training camp.

The three-week program took place in Chilliwack, B.C., in the fall of 2016, and was designed to train 26 Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) officers as emergency response team members — people highly trained for combat, employing weapons and tactics in dangerous situations.

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But Nubia Vanegas, 32, who works at the Fraser Valley Institution for Women in Abbotsford, B.C., says she was instantly made to feel unwelcome in the male-dominated class, and was eventually forced to withdraw because managers told her they couldn't guarantee her safety.

Vanegas, seen here in a Correctional Service of Canada training exercise, says she was verbally abused and subjected to gender-based discrimination. (Nubia Vanegas)

"This was on a course sanctioned and approved by the Correctional Service," Vanegas told Go Public. "Instead of pulling me out, that course should have been stopped altogether."

'It was humiliating'

In a complaint to the Canadian Human Rights Commission, Vanegas says she was "insulted, degraded, harassed and discriminated against."

She says course instructors continually claimed her gender made her "useless," and they referred to her as "the weakest link."

Vanegas after being tear-gassed as part of her ERT training. (Nubia Vanegas)

She also describes a number of events she found disturbing, including being forced to drink alcohol during a team-building event, finding her bras and panties strewn about her dorm room, and being woken in the middle of the night and made to stand in front of her male colleagues, wearing only a thin tank top and small shorts.

"It was humiliating," Vanegas says. "I was trying to cover myself with my arms, and they made me stand at attention."

She says the men on the course had all been told ahead of time that they were going to be woken up early for a drill and went to sleep wearing proper workout gear.

'They gave me my biggest fear'

One of the most distressing training events, Vanegas says, involved simulating an inmate attack.

During that exercise, participants had to enter a pitch dark room one at a time, lie on their backs, and fight off a male colleague who straddled them while instructors stood nearby, flicking their flashlights on and off to watch.  

"They yelled, 'Do you wanna get f--king raped? Is that what you want, Vanegas?'' - Nubia Vanegas, correctional officer

"When the men had to do the exercise, the instructors yelled, 'Don't give up! You've got this!'" Vanegas says.

"But with me, they yelled, 'Do you wanna get f--king raped? Is that what you want, Vanegas? You're going to get f--king raped!'

"They sexualized me," she says. "They gave me my biggest fear. 'We're going to rape you.'"

After six days, one of her managers from the Fraser Valley Institution for Women recommended that Vanegas withdraw from the course, saying she couldn't guarantee her safety.

Course suspended after investigation

An internal investigation by CSC led to the temporary suspension of the course while an "action plan" is devised. It also resulted in a report, which claimed Vanegas entered the training with a "predisposition to anticipate there would be problems."

It also said Vanegas "was the only one that didn't take the time to dress appropriately" the night an instructor banged on her door and told her to immediately get downstairs.

Sleeping quarters at the RCMP Chilliwack training centre, where Vanegas says she often didn't feel safe. (Tristan Le Rudulier/CBC)

When addressing the rape comments made during the inmate attack scenario, the report suggested Vanegas may have been upset by the drill where she was asked if she wanted to be raped because of something she experienced in her past that may have triggered emotions.

"That's insulting," says Vanegas. "That shouldn't be the reason you say the scenario is bad. You should say the scenario is bad because of what was said."

Letter of apology

Vanegas contacted Don Head, the commissioner of the CSC, who met with her in August and, she says, agreed she experienced a hazing.

He then sent Vanegas a letter of apology expressing "sincere regret for the experience and negative impacts" she endured and saying CSC will use her experience to improve the program.

'You're not disciplining people who sexually harass people. Haze people? Discriminate? That's wrong.' - Nubia Vanegas, correctional officer

But Vanegas wants the people who put her through the humiliation disciplined.

"They had to take a sensitivity course. That's it," she says.

"We get disciplined for wearing the wrong colour socks, but you're not disciplining people who sexually harass people? Haze people? Discriminate? That's wrong."

'Trying to silence me'

Most disturbing, she says, is an offer CSC made to her that she says amounts to a "gag order."

The CSC wanted her to sign a memorandum of agreement that would have seen Vanegas become a parole officer in her community by next spring, but only in exchange for agreeing not to file a grievance or take legal action over what happened to her, and only if the terms of the agreement were kept confidential.

"I think they're trying to silence me," says Vanegas. "But they're not taking away my ability to speak about this, and tell people, if you experience this, it's not right. I'm not signing it."

CSC responds

Go Public requested an interview with a spokesperson from the CSC, which was declined. Instead, CSC sent a written statement that did not address whether anyone was disciplined, citing privacy concerns.

As for why Vanegas was asked to keep details confidential, CSC said it "is done to protect the interests of ALL parties. The interests in preserving the confidence regarding the contents of a memorandum of agreement allow those who are impacted by the situation to come to mutual understanding without the influence of external pressures and constraints."

Regarding the training course, CSC said: "Employees are expected to act according to the highest legal and ethical standards" and that the agency "is committed to providing a workplace free of harassment and discrimination."

Confidentiality agreements

Toronto lawyer Elizabeth Grace has represented victims of sexual abuse for more than 20 years, and says many women are pressured into signing confidentiality agreements as a way to get closure.

Lawyer Elizabeth Grace says public institutions such as federal prisons have to be held to a high standard of transparency, and should not be forcing employees to 'keep their mouths shut' in exchange for justice. (Elizabeth Grace)

"Very few people have the courage that she has to say, 'I'm not taking an offer that would potentially improve my situation because of these greater principles — being able to talk about this,'" says Grace.

She says public institutions such as federal prisons have to be held to a high standard of transparency, and should not be forcing employees to "keep their mouths shut" in exchange for justice.

"The employer wants these [confidentiality agreements] not only for closure," says Grace. "But to limit the possibility of others finding out and coming forward."

'Significant problem' 

The harassment described by Vanegas is a form of sex discrimination that prevents equality in the workplace, says Kim Stanton, legal director of the Women's Legal Education and Action Fund.

LEAF's Kim Stanton says a workplace culture that allows sexual harassment of women prevents them from professional advancement. (Kim Stanton)

"It makes it very, very difficult for women to work in places where they're harassed and expected to just take it," Stanton says. "Because if they say something, their job's on the line, or there are other consequences."

CSC has long been criticized for having a work culture that allows the sexual harassment and abuse of female employees.

"This kind of workplace culture is really entrenched in some of these large institutions," says Stanton. "We've seen it with the RCMP, we've seen it in the military, we've seen it in Corrections Canada and there needs to be fundamental change.

"If the response is to silence the person who complains, rather than really tackle the underlying structural violence that is occurring in those workplaces, then that is a significant problem."

'This is not right' 

Vanegas is still working at the Fraser Valley Institution for Women, but worries about how fighting for change will affect her future.

She's hopeful that adding to the growing chorus of women calling out unacceptable treatment within Canada's prison system will lead to change.

"CSC needs to take accountability for it," says Vanegas. "Stand up for their women. And realize that this is not right."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erica Johnson
Investigative reporter

Erica Johnson is an award-winning investigative journalist. She hosted CBC's consumer program Marketplace for 15 years, investigating everything from dirty hospitals to fraudulent financial advisors. As co-host of the CBC news segment Go Public, Erica continues to expose wrong-doing and hold corporations and governments to account.

With files from Enza Uda
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