2 Muslim inmates file rights complaints against Alberta prison

Two Muslim inmates have filed complaints with the Canadian Human Rights Commission over their treatment at Grande Cache Institution, a federal prison in northwestern Alberta.

'Our religion was trumped because of band practice,' complainant says

Nicolas Hovanesian, 30, is one of two Muslim inmates who have launched human rights complaints. They say they were called terrorists, subjected to racist jokes and not given sufficient time for prayers in the chapel at the Grande Cache Institution in Alberta. (Courtesy Hovanesian family )

Two Muslim inmates have filed complaints with the Canadian Human Rights Commission over their treatment at Grande Cache Institution, a federal prison in northwestern Alberta.

Nicolas Hovanesian, 30, and Mohammed Karim, 35, say they have been called terrorists, subjected to racist jokes and refused adequate time for prayers and ceremonies in the prison chapel.

The alleged incidents took place over the past two years.

Hovanesian told CBC News that Mark McGee, a Catholic priest and chaplain for the past nine years at Grande Cache, would cut short their Friday prayers and limit their access to the chapel. "Like Eid," Hovanesian said. "We were in the middle of our celebrations and he kicked us out of the chapel because there was a Catholic band practice … our religion was trumped because of band practice."

The men said they were both suspended from the chapel and faced institutional discipline because they refused to call the priest "Father." While other inmates were allowed to use the washroom in the chapel, Karim said, they were refused access to it to wash before prayers, which is a requirement for Muslims.

In several cases, they said, the priest made disparaging remarks to themselves and others, especially to converts. "Like say, there was a white Muslim, like a convert, he would make comments like, say, 'You're white, why are you Muslim, you should be Catholic,'" Hovanesian said.

Dirty blankets as prayer mats

Karim said Muslim inmates were given dirty blankets to use as prayer mats. Then, when several prayer mats and other religious items were donated to the institution by a mosque in Edmonton, the chaplain charged the inmates $20 each to use them. "Some guys here only make $20 every two weeks in pay," said Hovanesian.

Amira Elghawaby, communications director with the National Council of Canadian Muslims, told CBC News she is aware of the complaints and has heard of similar cases across the country. "There should be a standard of spiritual care that is provided across the board and there should not be any discrimination or any kind," she said.

Amira Elghawaby, communications director with the National Council of Canadian Muslims, says there should be a 'standard of spiritual care' across the country's prisons. ( Amira El-Ghawaby)

"If the government is really serious in ensuring that Canada's prison system is preparing inmates to eventually be released into society … it's critical that there is an effort made to ensure that religious and spiritual services are done in a very professional and open manner."

When Karim arrived at Grande Cache, he said there was no regular imam at the prison, which is located about 445 kilometres west of Edmonton. So he began leading the prayers, which he said labelled him as a troublemaker. "You know, you see a leader with a beard and suddenly he's a bad influence."

Karim said he was confronted by the priest and threatened on several occasions. In one case, documents obtained by CBC News show a parole officer witnessed the priest confronting Karim. The parole officer filed a complaint with prison administrators. In it, he described the priest as "picking on" Karim and treating Muslims unfairly.

The inmates complained to prison officials and submitted grievances, but they said nothing was done. They were told since the priest was not an employee, but on contract, local officials couldn't do anything.

In 2012, the correctional service cancelled contracts of part-time chaplains in federal institutions. The vast majority of chaplaincy services in federal prisons are now supplied by a private company based in New Brunswick.

"We had a meeting and the institution pretty much sided with the chaplain, they didn't want to hear our concerns," Hovanesian said. "When we complain they take his side. We really don't have a voice here."

Priest denies allegations

In a telephone conversation, Father Mark McGee denied the allegations.

He said things have improved for Muslims. "I think really a lot of those concerns have been addressed.… We try very hard to make sure everyone is welcome in the chapel," he said. "We're really doing very well here and everyone seems very happy." He referred further comment to corrections officials.

In an email statement sent after the story was published, Correctional Service of Canada says it "respects the religious freedom and right of expression of federal offenders of all faiths." The statement adds: "Grande Cache Institution is actively engaged in ongoing discussions with Muslim inmates and faith group partners over the concerns expressed by inmates."

The CSC said the institution does provide inmates with access to the chapel for Friday prayer and recently began video conferences with an imam for religious teaching.

Documents from the correctional service show the prison has recently arranged for Muslim inmates to have a weekly video conference link with an imam and provided for more prayer time in the chapel.

But Hovanesian said he's no longer going to services. "It doesn't feel good," he said. "It's depressing … I don't even go to the chapel anymore, because I want to avoid confrontation with Mr. McGee."

He has requested a transfer to another prison. But so far that's been denied.

Karim was recently transferred to an Ontario prison where he said Muslim inmates have access to "hundreds of books and DVDs" and an imam who meets with inmates twice a week.

Karim is serving a life sentence for murder and Hovanesian is serving a 14-year sentence for kidnapping.