Canada's minister of public safety is calling on authorities to thoroughly investigate and put an end to alleged harassment at Edmonton's federal prison, and his office says part of the investigation will be handled by a third party.

Ralph Goodale's response comes after a CBC report released Tuesday that outlined fears from corrections staff over sexually explicit phone conversations between male prison guards at work.

'These allegations are disturbing.' - Ralph Goodale, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness

Whistleblower employee sources say an intelligence worker wanted to figure out why inmates' multiple calls for help on a cell buzzer system were missed, and noticed some guards were on the prison's internal phones for several hours during a shift. All conversations on that internal system are recorded.

When the worker listened to the recordings, they found male prison guards were making demeaning, sexually explicit comments about female co-workers, sources say.

Sources say management was alerted to the tapes in the summer, but some of the female co-workers were not told they were mentioned on those tapes until several weeks later.

The whistleblowers also say some employees allege their safety was threatened in relation to the recordings: a corrections employee who tried to help the women in meetings with the union withdrew when he said he was threatened by another guard. And Edmonton police confirmed to CBC they opened a file on a report that a female guard's home address and phone number were made available to inmates.

Correctional Services of Canada, the warden and union leaders declined CBC's multiple requests for interviews, but said the issue is under an "ongoing investigation."

Ralph Goodale

'I expect a comprehensive investigation, strong discipline, support for victims and an end to toxic workplace behaviour,' says Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale. (CBC)

"These allegations are disturbing," Goodale wrote in an email statement to CBC on Tuesday. "I expect a comprehensive investigation, strong discipline, support for victims and an end to toxic workplace behaviour."

Asked for details on what Goodale meant by a "comprehensive investigation," Scott Bardsley, a spokesperson in the minister's office, said a "third party has been engaged to complete the disciplinary investigation." Bardsley was unable to provide more details about what that means.

'It is harassment'

Canadian labour lawyer Howard Levitt has represented numerous clients in harassment cases.

He said the discovery of demeaning sexual phone conversations at the maximum-security Edmonton Institution, and the Correctional Service of Canada's alleged mishandling of the response, "doesn't surprise me in the slightest."

"It is harassment," Levitt said in an interview with CBC.

"The question is why is there such a culture of lassitude? Why is it being permitted? Is it a lack of training? Or is it a culture of impermeability: that because they're prison guards, they're used to having people effectively subject to them — and they think they can get away with everything."

'There has to be a wholesale cultural change. And it has to come from the top.' - Howard Levitt, Canadian labour lawyer

​Levitt said there are often few options for targets of workplace harassment.

"If a union doesn't take a legitimate case, effectively, there's very little recourse. Less than one per cent of cases to the labour board complaining of a lack of union representation have been successful," he said.

"And if they're complicit themselves, or if they're friends with the people doing it, they're looking for a quick apology and under the rug. And if they're not getting that, they're going to look the other way."

He said handling complaints through human resources can also be a hit-or-miss process, as HR investigations and decisions only have as much weight as managers give them.  

Civil lawsuits, Levitt said, are only feasible in cases with many complainants, such as the class action brought by several women against the RCMP. And they are more rare.

"There has to be a wholesale cultural change," he said. "And it has to come from the top."


Definition of harassment (from Government of Canada website)

Improper conduct by an individual, that is directed at and offensive to another individual in the workplace, including at any event or any location related to work, and that the individual knew or ought reasonably to have known would cause offence or harm. It comprises objectionable act(s), comment(s) or display(s) that demean, belittle, or cause personal humiliation or embarrassment, and any act of intimidation or threat. It also includes harassment within the meaning of the Canadian Human Rights Act (i.e. based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family status, disability and pardoned conviction).