A labour deal with Ontario's correctional workers will clear the way for a "transformation" of the province's correctional system, minister Yasir Naqvi said on CBC Radio's Metro Morning on Monday.
Naqvi, the minister responsible for the province's jails, was speaking in response to a deal that moves the labour dispute between the government and Ontario's 6,000 jail guards, parole and probation officers to binding arbitration. In signing the agreement, the union gives up its right to strike on this contract, but also all future ones.
The deal came less than a day before a strike deadline.
Naqvi said granting the essential service designation acknowledges that Ontario's correctional service employees "do very important work."
"They are very much part and parcel to ensuring we have public safety in our communities," he told host Matt Galloway. "This is something they've wanted for some time. We are very happy an agreement has been reached."
But will it cost more?
Galloway asked if entrenching binding arbitration will make future labour deals more expensive.
"The trends vary," said Naqvi. "We've seen them go up and down."
Naqvi said the deal complies with the "fiscal framework" outlined in the Liberals' spring budget.
"What's important for us is that we normalize operations in our jails across the province," he said.
The NDP has pointed to chronic understaffing in Ontario's jails, leading to overcrowding, increased lockdowns and higher overtime costs.
About 8,000 people are in custody in Ontario, while another 56,000 are out on probation or parole.
Galloway asked Naqvi about union claims that the system is short about 800 workers. Naqvi said that number is "probably in that ballpark."
Naqvi, however, said more than 570 new workers have been hired since 2013.
Move away from 'warehousing'
With the labour deal now in place, Naqvi said he wants to shift the system away from a "warehousing" model, with more help for inmates with mental health issues, better health care and improved integration programs for inmates leaving the system.
"This is the start of transforming our system so it focuses on the health and safety of corrections, probation and parole officers and ensuring that we get inmates better rehabilitated and reintegrated back into society, which should be the purpose of the system," he said.
For example, Naqvi said 60 per cent of current inmates are on remand (facing charges but awaiting trial). It's a number he said has doubled in the last 10 years.
"That's what we need to manage," he said. "[Remand inmates] should be in the community, getting appropriate services.
"It's not going to happen overnight but I think this is an opportunity for all of us to work in partnership and bring about that change."