Quebec has emerged as ground zero in the coronavirus pandemic in Canada. With more cases reported than anywhere else in the country, public health officials have been scrambling to do their best to contain the virus, including closing entire regions to external visitors, except in emergencies.
Just as alarming is the danger posed by COVID-19 for the people who live in Quebec but are in custody of the federal government. Prisoners and people held by the Canada Border Services Agency have rarely been mentioned during Justin Trudeau’s daily briefings, despite the fact that their lives depend directly on the federal government’s decisions.
Already, outbreaks have been reported in federal correctional institutions. In Port-Cartier, on Quebec’s North Shore, two prisoners and one correctional worker have been diagnosed with COVID-19. Port-Cartier is remote: nearly 600 kilometres from Quebec City, and is in one of the regions that the Quebec government has closed to outside traffic. As of April 1 there were 35 cases confirmed in the North Shore region.
There have also been positive cases of COVID-19 found in Joliette and Grand Valley women’s institutions and the Toronto South Detention Centre in Ontario.
At Beaver Creek Institution north of Toronto, inmates have been placed on lockdown to contain spread of the virus. This means they can only leave their cells for two hours each day.
In prisons, where personal hygiene items are only available for purchase, the standard advice of social distancing and washing hands cannot contain an outbreak in the same way it will help mitigate one outside. The common practice of double-bunking — putting two prisoners into a single cell — makes it impossible for people to maintain the requisite distance from others to diminish the spread.
In a letter to four Liberal cabinet ministers, the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies called for federal prisons to be depopulated. In it, executive director Emilie Coyle wrote, “A system that was already failing to meet the needs of the people in their care cannot reasonably claim that they can manage a public health crisis. Given the substandard access to health care and the potential for rapid spread within prisons, as prisoners become ill they will need to be transferred to hospitals, putting even greater pressure on an already strained health-care system.”
On Tuesday, Public Safety Minister, and former Toronto chief of police, Bill Blair asked the Parole Board of Canada and Correctional Service Canada to consider releasing non-violent prisoners.
Inmates aren’t the only people who live in the custody of the state. So too do people who are held in detention centres overseen by the Canada Border Services Agency. From Jan. 1 to March 31, 2019, there were almost 3,000 people in CBSA custody. Several detainees at the Laval Immigration Monitoring Centre near Montreal have staged a hunger strike demanding that they be released so they can practise social distancing and have access to medical care.
People can be held in immigration detention for a few days or several months, depending on the circumstances of their cases. Advocates argue that once COVID-19 appears in these facilities, it will be very difficult to stop its spread.
"Canada has a responsibility to keep people in its custody safe. It’s the only humane option. If we’re in the business of warehousing human life, we have a responsibility to protect that life."
As part of its coronavirus strategy, Canada has closed its borders. Anyone seeking refugee status who crosses from the United States will be sent back. This is illegal under international law. When Trudeau announced that this included even folks who cross irregularly into Canada from the U.S., he surprised many refugee rights advocates by enacting a long-standing demand of far-right activists in Canada.
It’s clear that Canadian officials aren’t taking the plight of either inmates or refugees as serious as they need to. Depopulation should have been agreed to before COVID-19 appeared in correctional facilities. Doing so now has sent the system into a scramble, setting off infections that are too late to control. The moment COVID-19 appeared in Canada, immigration detention centres should have been closed. Everyone in CBSA custody should have been given appropriate lodgings to ride out the pandemic in quarantine like all Canadians are being asked to do.
There has been a reluctance to criticize how Trudeau is handling the COVID-19 pandemic. Two-thirds of Canadians in one recent poll said that they believe Trudeau is doing a good job. But if we judge Trudeau’s actions as they relate to people who the state has the responsibility to care for, it’s clear his government is failing.
A report released from Refugees International on Monday argued that governments around the world must step up and help refugees, or else face a catastrophe among the world’s displaced people. “(A) virus does not respect borders,” the report reads. “Nor does it discriminate. A truly effective response, not to mention a morally correct one, also must not discriminate.”
With no relief money for people in state custody, few options possible in the institutions to improve their safety from the virus that is accelerating day by day, time is running out. Canada could welcome some refugees, like Finland, Portgual and France have done, despite the pandemic. Or they could be settled temporarily in otherwise empty hotels.
Prisoners could also be given a place to live and self isolate, outside of the walls of a federal institution.
There is an obvious reason to help these people: If the coronavirus circulates anywhere in Canada, it poses a threat to all Canadians, and institutional walls will not keep a virus in, in the same way that those walls could not keep the virus out. But more essential, Canada has a responsibility to keep people in its custody safe. It’s the only humane option. If we’re in the business of warehousing human life, we have a responsibility to protect that life.