A group of immigration detainees on a hunger strike at two Ontario prisons is demanding to meet Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale.
But a spokesperson for Goodale would not say on Tuesday whether the minister is prepared to meet with the detainees, reported to number more than 60.
Scott Bardsley, spokesperson for Goodale in Ottawa, said in a statement that the Canada Border Services Agency is working with the detainees to resolve the issue safely. The detainees are calling for an end to indefinite detentions in maximum security prisons and are protesting prison conditions that include lockdowns and solitary confinement.
"Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale is working on issues related to detention and hopes to put forward proposals in public later this year," Bardsley said.
According to Bardsley, the minister recently visited the Vancouver Immigration Holding Centre to see conditions for himself. He said Goodale has also met with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as part of his work.
Andrew Morrison, spokesperson for Ontario's community safety and correctional services ministry, confirmed this week that "a number" of detainees are refusing food at the Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, Ont.
"We are aware that a number of inmates, who are immigration detainees at the Central East Correctional Centre, are refusing meal services and medical staff are actively monitoring these inmates for health concerns," he said.
Morrison said the ministry "is committed to ensuring that all inmates within our care and custody are treated fairly and respectfully, and have access to all the same services and supports as they would in the community, including those held on behalf of the Canada Border Services Agency."
He said under a federal-provincial agreement that the ministry has with the CBSA, detainees may be held at provincial correctional centres while they are waiting examination, inquiry or removal under federal immigration legislation.
The End Immigration Detention Network, an advocacy group, said detainees at the Toronto East Detention Centre are also on a hunger strike.
It said the number began at 50 when the hunger strike started on Monday and has grown to more than 60.
"We would like immigration detention to end and something more fair or realistic be worked out," Toby Clark, who has been in immigration detention since August 2014, said in a statement. "We would like to meet with MPs. To me, the way immigration detention is right now, it's cruel and unusual punishment.
"If your country refuses to issue travel documents, some people are held months, some people are held years and there is nothing that they can do about their country not issuing travel documents. It's sad that people are separated from their family in Canada for so long. They don't get a second chance."
Sharmeen Khan, a member of End Immigration Detention Network, said in a statement that many of the detainees are already unwell and the hunger strike could put them in danger.
"The Liberal government came into power promising to do the right thing. These detainees have been organizing since September 2013 but no elected officials have met with them. Minister Goodale must meet with the detainees, and commit to upholding international norms and basic human rights by ending immigration detention."
Khan said detainees are often subjected to long lockdowns during summer, sometimes kept in small shared cells for days in a row, not able to speak with their families or with lawyers.
According to End Immigration Detention Network, the detainees went on a hunger strike earlier this year in April. CBSA officials met with them, but the group said they have not followed through on the promises they made. The detainees have now restarted their hunger strike and want to meet with elected officials.
Bardsley said the CBSA is required to consider all reasonable alternatives before detaining someone. "Under Canadian law, detention is only allowed when: identity is not certain, there is a flight risk or a danger for the public," he said.
He said Goodale recently tabled legislation to create a committee of MPs who can scrutinize any department or agency with national security responsibilities, including CBSA.
"Our goal is to ensure our Canadian approach is world-class, including our methods of enforcement, with effective transparency and accountability."
The CBSA has said it transfers detainees to jails when they are considered high risk. That includes detainees who have criminal backgrounds, outstanding charges, a history of violence, are an escape risk, or pose a danger to themselves or others.