'This can't happen in our name': Protesters call on MGEU to stand firm on Remand Centre deaths

A small but dedicated group of protesters are demanding the union representing employees of the province take a firmer stance in support of increased transparency when inmates die in custody.

MGEU spokeswoman says union doesn't have authority to make changes to how province handles inmate deaths

Protesters gathered outside the headquarters of the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union on Thursday, demanding an apology for comments made by the union president earlier this year. (CBC)

A small but dedicated group of protesters is demanding the union representing employees of the province take a firmer stance in support of increased transparency when inmates die in custody.

On Thursday, around 10 members of the Justice for Errol Working Group gathered outside the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union headquarters in Winnipeg, holding a banner and handing out pamphlets commemorating Errol Greene, who died while in custody at the Winnipeg Remand Centre in May.

They want to see the MGEU apologize for comments made by president Michelle Gawronsky earlier this year in relation to inmate deaths asking people to "withhold judgment" about what took place in the deaths of multiple inmates in custody throughout the year.

Jacquie Nicholson, one of the organizers of the event, called Gawronsky's comments "insensitive and counterproductive."
Jacquie Nicholson helped organize the protest outside the MGEU headquarters, and said she wants to see the union stand behind a list of demands for increased transparency when inmates die in custody. (CBC)

"We think that that is either a very naive interpretation of how things work in jails and prisons, or perhaps a willful misrepresentation of the type of justice system we have in Manitoba," Nicholson said.

While Gawronsky asked observers to wait for the facts of the case to be revealed, Nicholson believes that will never happen because of the way the province handles deaths in jails and prisons.

So far in 2016, five people have died in the Winnipeg Remand Centre — a sharp increase from previous years.

Documents obtained under the freedom-of-information law show there were only two deaths between 2010 and 2015 at the remand centre, which houses roughly 300 people.

The documents show internal operational reviews of two deaths were completed this year, but requests to access them by The Canadian Press and CBC were denied.

Nicholson criticized what she called the "culture of secrecy" surrounding investigations into deaths in custody.

She said her group is also calling on the MGEU to deliver on a handful of other demands including ensuring the corrections workers they represent are held accountable and putting pressure on provincial institutions to release results of internal investigations into deaths.

"When these sorts of things happen to people, it's being done in the name of public safety," she said.

"Basically we just have to say, 'Not in our name. This can't happen in our name.'"

MGEU sympathetic to families, spokeswoman says

Janet Kehler, member service manager at MGEU, said while the union is sympathetic to families whose loved ones die in custody, the union doesn't have the authority to make the changes the protesters want to see.
Janet Kehler of the MGEU said the union is sympathetic to what families go through when loved ones die in custody, but doesn't have the authority to change provincial policy surrounding inmate death. (CBC)

The union doesn't have access to the findings of internal reviews either, she said, and can't compel provincial institutions to release them. 

"The government of Manitoba not only sets the standards and policies that officers have to abide by in the institutions and enforce that, but they're the only ones with the authority to either call an inquest or hold an investigation," she said.

"That goes beyond our scope and so we're not able to do that, so I can't comment because we don't have access to those, and it would be really inappropriate of us to be investigating that matter."

Regarding Gawronsky's comments, Kehler said correctional officers are entitled to fair process, and deserve to have all the facts on the table before judgment is made.

Kehler said the union has urged the government to open lines of communications to family members, and supports protesters' call to share findings with them.

"I, again, can't imagine how frustrated I would be if one of my loved ones died and I didn't know the circumstances under which they did," she said. "We absolutely agree that they have a right to get that information, and I think a level of transparency is required."

With files from Caroline Barghout and The Canadian Press