Nova Scotia

N.S. lawsuit targets federal attorney general over sex crimes in prisons

A Halifax law firm is launching a lawsuit against the federal attorney general, alleging justice officials have failed to protect women in federal prisons from sexual assault at the hands of prison staff.

'I've witnessed first hand ... the lack of accountability,' says former inmate

Sara Tessier is the named plaintiff in the case. (CBC)

A Halifax law firm has launched a lawsuit against the federal attorney general, alleging justice officials have failed to protect women in federal prisons from sexual assault at the hands of prison staff.

Former inmate Sara Tessier is the named plaintiff in the case, which the firm Valent Law hopes to get certified as a class action.

"The reason why I put my name to this as the lead representative in the case is because I've witnessed first hand and through my experience the violations of the charter of freedom and rights and the lack of accountability on CSC's [Correctional Service of Canada] part to first take these allegations serious, act upon them and rectify the situation," Tessier said Thursday. 

Tessier said in her experience, officers accused of an offence against an inmate are transferred rather than losing their jobs or facing charges.

CSC response

While the lawsuit has been filed in Nova Scotia Supreme Court, the hope is that it will be certified as a national class action, so that women who were held in any federal institution and allege they were victims of sex offences can join in.

None of the allegations has been tested in court.

The Correctional Service of Canada said in an emailed statement Thursday that it had not yet been served with the lawsuit and could not comment directly on the matter.

"Correctional Service Canada (CSC) takes allegations of sexual coercion and violence seriously and does not tolerate any breach of the law or CSC policies," the statement said.

"CSC employees are expected to carry out their duties with professionalism and consistently with the [service's] policies and mission — and of course, the law."

The federal agency said there are multiple avenues for victims or witnesses to report inappropriate actions by staff, adding that all allegations of sexual assault, coercion or violence must be reported by the service and investigated. Employees are obligated to immediately contact police regarding allegations that could constitute a criminal offence.

Prison watchdog report

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair promised to curb sexual violence and coercion after Canada's prison watchdog tabled a report last fall in Parliament warning of systemic abuse behind bars.

In his report, correctional investigator Ivan Zinger described sexual violence as "a pervasive but underreported problem in federal prisons."

The Correctional Service of Canada said in its email to CBC News that it is taking "concrete actions" since Zinger's report, including the creation of a directive focused "on the prevention of sexual violence and coercion by providing tools for staff and offenders, including addressing the reluctance of alleged victims to come forward in certain situations."

It added that correctional officers are trained on how to respond to reports of inmate sexual assault, and inmates have the phone number for the Office of the Correctional Investigator programmed into their phone accounts to make confidential reports.

"We are committed to take the necessary actions to strengthen our approach to this issue and provide the necessary support to those in our care and custody," the statement said.

'We're going to make changes'

Emma Halpern, executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society Mainland Nova Scotia, said it is difficult to get a handle on just how widespread the problem is.

"Sexual assaults, sexual harm, sexual violence are crimes that survive on the silence of the victims, the shame, the humiliation that the victims experience and feel," Halpern said.

"So unfortunately, it's one of the least reported crimes that occur are crimes of sexual violence."

Halpern is the executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society Mainland Nova Scotia. (CBC)

Tessier and Halpern said the situation has been complicated by the pandemic because prison visits from people like Elizabeth Fry staff have been cut off.

Tessier said she recognizes the legal action will be a long and difficult process, but she is committed.

"We're going to make changes and we're going to be able to help the people who have been victimized within these institutions," she said. 

"It's going to be a long, drawn-out process but I'm ready for the fight, and that's why I have no problem putting my name out there because when it comes down to it, I'm not afraid to fight for what's right."