Canada must tackle racism in federal prisons, Senate committee hears

OTTAWA — Natalie Charles has almost completed her goal of becoming a paralegal, but she wants to do her job placement in a government office. The 39-year-old mother of two says a pardon from an almost two-decades-old conviction is standing in her way — and she's not alone.

Charles' testimony Wednesday to the Senate's human rights committee highlighted something well known to the senators studying the federal correctional system: systemic and structural changes are needed to better allow former inmates to integrate with society.

Black Canadians make up 8.6 per cent of the population of federal prisons, even though they account for just three per cent of the overall Canadian population.

And while their numbers have declined alongside the overall prisoner population, the corrections watchdog's most recent annual report found that black inmates were more likely to be in maximum security, placed in segregation and involved in violent incidents.

"One of the things that becomes really clear is that changes are needed on every level," said Sen. Wanda Bernard Thomas, the Senate committee's chairwoman.

"There are systemic and structural changes that are needed, but also individual problems that you can see at different places in the system and we need to have a commitment...to change and then change will happen."

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called for action to ensure equal opportunity and treatment for the more than one million black Canadians, and Bernard says she expects the government to follow through on that message.

The special meeting Wednesday was called to look at the experiences of black female inmates as part of Black History Month. A second special meeting of the committee will be held at the end of February.

Incarcerated black women are behind bars primarily for drug offences.

Charles was one of two former inmates who talked about their experiences during an emotional two hours of testimony that included references to racial epitaphs hurled at black inmates, and the barriers inmates face to full employment upon release — particularly when they are asked about criminal records on job applications and apartment rental forms.

Even though she hasn't been in trouble with the law for more than 15 years, the record is "like a cloud over my head that cannot seem to go away."

Charles said she believes the government can make pardons easier for those who have given back to their community and are looking for work. She also spoke about the need for more community centres and after-school activities to keep children out of trouble in the first place.

Bernard said she has also heard suggestions for a federal directorate or office to liaise with black communities, similar to the ministry of African Nova Scotian Affairs.

Denise Edwards, another former federal inmate, suggested there is also a need to help judges understand the unique life experiences of black Canadians.

Edwards, currently a part-time student at the University of Toronto, said federal officials should also look at offering educational programs for older inmates before their release.

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press

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