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'Toxic, misogynistic culture': Female prison guards launch class-action lawsuit

Female Canadian corrections officers say their workplace environment fosters sexual harassment, discrimination and assault, and forces them "to stay silent in the face of terror."
Female Canadian prison guards are in Federal Court in Vancouver to try and change their working conditions.

Canadian female corrections officers allege their workplace is rife with gender-based harassment, sexual harassment, discrimination and assault.

And they want the Federal Court of Canada to do something about it — a proposed class action suit started in Vancouver on March 8.

In a statement of claim originally filed March 19, 2021, the guards allege the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) created an environment that fostered silence. 

“Through its conduct, the Crown taught female employees to stay silent in the face of terror or they would be punished and face reprisals,” the suit said.

“This proposed class action is our call to action — on behalf of women working in corrections institutions across the country who have been subjected to sexualized harassment, discrimination, assault, and violence in a Government of Canada workplace,” the guards’ lawyer Angela Bespflug said.

The claim alleges the federal government was negligent in failing to ensure female employees could work in an environment free of gender-based harassment, discrimination and assault.

Sharlene Hudson, one of two guards included in the suit, alleges male peers subjected her to sexual and physical abuse, including exposing their genitals to her and “relentless attempts to engage in sexual activities with her.”

The claim said female officers were placed in dangerous situations without backup, weapons or other gear that would be provided to male colleagues, and that there was no system in place for the CSC to address concerns.

Hudson met with the CSC’s deputy commissioner in 2018, according to court documents, and detailed the problems and their effects. But it's alleged he appeared uninterested.

Brinda Wilson-Demuth, the other guard in the proposed class action, said she was told by the CSC commissioner that, as a woman at CSC, she was “expected to put up with a fair amount of abuse.”

The claim alleges internal resources for problems were ineffective because they were dependent on the chain of command, “comprised of individuals who abused their power and who were either responsible for the offending behaviour or who acted to protect other perpetrators.”

It further alleges the conduct breached employees’ rights to security of the person and right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sex.

The suit said workplaces include prisons as well as administrative and parole offices, community correctional centres and national and regional headquarters.

“The toxic, misogynistic culture at CSC is a product of its para-militaristic, hierarchical structure,” states the claim. 

Post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, limited careers and income loss were among the injuries listed.

“No amount of money can compensate these women for the harms that they’ve endured, but this action gives a voice to their experiences,” Bespflug said. “The harms that these women have experienced cannot be tolerated in any workplace in Canada, and certainly not in a Government of Canada workplace. The culture at corrections is the antithesis of gender equality.”

CSC was not immediately available for comment.

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