Fraser Valley corrections officers who have been victims of workplace harassment say they’re better off staying silent than speaking out against an abusive boss.
One corrections officer’s harassment complaint against his manager at Mission Institution’s medium-security facility was lodged in 2019. An external company was hired to conduct an investigation going back five years, and the 38-page report substantiated the officer’s allegations in April 2021.
Correctional Service Canada (CSC) gave the same manager a promotion less than a year later and moved him to another Fraser Valley prison in early 2022, according to the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers (UCCO).
“There’s no discipline that comes out of these harassment investigations,” said Derek Chin, UCCO’s Pacific region president.
The Record spoke to five corrections officers at Fraser Valley prisons, all of whom wished to remain anonymous. Each had harassment complaints against their managers founded by investigations dating back to 2017.
All said their harassers faced little or no repercussions, and most feel they have to choose between returning to work under their abuser or leave their careers behind.
“It got to the point where I was suicidal,” one officer said. “The inmates treat us better than management.”
By its own admission, CSC has a problem regarding workplace harassment.
In 2019, their first Workplace Climate and Well-Being Annual Report was published in response to “serious allegations” of misconduct in the workplace – notably at Edmonton Institution – along with the poor results of previous years’ Public Service Employee Surveys (PSES).
The PSES findings highlighted that correctional officers have stress levels 20 per cent higher than public service employees overall; 34 per cent believed they had been a victim of harassment, but only one per cent filed an official complaint, and only 25 per cent believed management made satisfactory efforts to resolve known issues.
“CSC staff have little trust in senior management,” the report said. A foreword written by CSC commissioner Anne Kelly stated that fixing workplace “bullying, harassment and sexual violence is one of my key priorities.”
Edmonton Institution was subject to a workplace assessment by an external investigation, resulting in seven employees and middle managers being fired, the report stated.
The UCCO says a similar assessment is now underway at Mission Institution.
The 2019-20 PSES results show that 43 per cent of participating Mission Institution staff said they had been a victim of harassment in the past year, compared to 24 per cent of staff across CSC and 11 per cent of public service employees across Canada.
Eighty per cent of staff said they had been harassed by an individual with authority over them.
Every officer The Record spoke with said they had suffered some form of mental distress as a result of the harassment, ranging from taking stress leave to being diagnosed with a mental disability.
Their harassment claims included demeaning comments made regarding the officer’s appearance, favoritism towards others, undermining and withholding career opportunities, and even spreading rumours about the officers around the prisons.
The Mission Institution officer alleged that he was frequently called disparaging nicknames, discouraged and misled about training dates for career advancement, passed over for positions for which he was in line, and cited with unfair performance issues which kept him out of a managerial role, according to the investigation report.
In one instance, the officer asked for a shift change to spend more time with his wife following a miscarriage. The manager did not grant the request and made insensitive comments.
CSC would not comment on the alleged promotion of the manager shortly after, citing the Privacy Act.
In another case at Mountain Institution in 2018, a manager started a rumour around the prison that two officers had engaged in sexual activity in the washroom together.
That manager has also not been moved, and was later given a substantive position at the prison, according to the UCCO.
“The entire jail knew about the rumour,” one officer said. “It was just a horrible thing, so demeaning.”
Dealing with these harassment cases has been a “very frustrating road” for the UCCO, Chin said. Even after Bill C-65 passed on Jan. 1, 2021, he said there’s still no transparent disciplinary process.
As an amendment to the Canadian Labour Code, Bill C-65 had the goal of strengthening the existing framework for harassment and violence prevention in federal workplaces.
Each federal employer is now required to receive and resolve each complaint within one year, and investigations are now conducted through an agreed-upon third party.
Chin said the problem is when harassment is proven, the solutions are left to CSC’s discretion. Their common resolution for harassment cases is called “workplace restoration,” he said, meaning the parties resolve the complaint internally through mediation with the Office of Conflict Management (OCF).
“That’s their magic word – workplace restoration,” Chin said, adding it doesn’t address the power dynamics in the abuse. “The employee has been victimized and is actually quite terrified. How can you put them together to work again?”
Chin said CSC could easily relocate these managers to any one of the seven federal institutions in the Fraser Valley, which frequently occurs when regular officers are accused of bullying a peer.
The Record asked CSC for an interview with the commissioner regarding the workplace assessment at Mission Institution and discipline for abusive managers, but it was not granted. Instead, a general response was sent, indicating the complaint process includes following up with the manager to ensure that all concerns are being addressed, including any detrimental impacts from harassment, and further actions needed to restore the workplace.
When disciplinary action is required, it takes into account “the values of the public sector, circumstances, legislation, precedents, policies and guidelines,” CSC said.
Officers have been covering their badge with a black tape since Feb. 27, 2022, and the UCCO held a national press conference on March 2 to draw attention to a series of issues affecting its members – one being workplace harassment.