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'The most dangerous criminals in our country': Federal, provincial politicians clash on vaccinating prisoners in Canada's correctional institutions

Elisabetta Bianchini
·7-min read

For more on today’s top stories and the spread of the novel coronavirus across the country, please refer to our live updates below throughout the day, as well as our COVID-19 news hub.

Federal and provincial Conservative leaders are taking aim at the federal government for commencing vaccinations of prisoners in correctional institutions this week.

Correctional Service Canada (CSC) confirmed Wednesday that vaccination of inmates in federal facilities will begin on Friday, starting with 600 “highest-risk inmates,” using the Moderna vaccine.

Once news broke of federal inmates beginning to receive COVID-19 vaccines, federal Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole tweeted out a statement saying, “not one criminal should be vaccinated ahead of any vulnerable Canadian or front line health worker.”

At a press conference on Wednesday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he “didn’t believe” that the federal government would distribute COVID-19 vaccines to “the most dangerous criminals in the entire country” so soon.

“I imagine whoever the minister is in change of that has dropped the ball,” Ford said. “I still can’t believe it’s going to happen.”

“How do you square this? How do you put them ahead of long-term care patients? How do you put them in front of all the most vulnerable and we’re scraping every vaccine we can get?”

The Ontario premier went on to say that he encourages Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to stop these vaccines from being delivered to federal correction institutions.

“We all make mistakes, I make mistakes, but..let’s correct it,” Ford said. “It’s not good, not good at all to give the most dangerous criminals in our country vaccines over the most vulnerable people out there.”

Conservative Party of Canada leader Erin O'Toole speaks during a news conference on Parliament Hill August 25, 2020 in Ottawa, Ontario. - Canadian Conservatives on August 24, 2020 announced their new leader, former air force navigator Erin O'Toole, who will quickly have to get the party battle-ready to challenge liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in possible snap elections. Following a largely virtual campaign due to the coronavirus epidemic, O'Toole, 47, was proclaimed the winner early Monday after a record 175,000 voted in the party race. (Photo by Dave Chan / AFP) (Photo by DAVE CHAN/AFP via Getty Images)
Conservative Party of Canada leader Erin O'Toole speaks during a news conference on Parliament Hill August 25, 2020 in Ottawa, Ontario. (Photo by Dave Chan / AFP) (Photo by DAVE CHAN/AFP via Getty Images)

‘The language of resentment and fear really has no place in this discussion’

Minister Blair shot back at the comments by provincial and federal Conservative leaders on vaccinating inmates.

“I think that all of us, including the province of Ontario, have a lot of work to do to make sure that we have an efficient and effective rollout of the vaccine for all of those who need it,” Blair said.

“I would also simply remind the premier and the Conservative leader that frankly, the language of resentment and fear really has no place in this discussion. It really needs to be based on the advice of our pubic health authorities.”

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) has set the recommendations to guide vaccine delivery across Canada. The four groups NACI has recommended distributing initial doses of COVID-19 vaccine to are:

  • Residents and staff of congregate living settings that provide care for seniors

  • Adults 70 years of age and older, beginning with adults 80 years of age and older, then decreasing the age limit by five-year increments to age 70 years as supply becomes available

  • Health care workers (including all those who work in health care settings and personal support workers whose work involves direct contact with patients)

  • Adults in Indigenous communities where infection can have disproportionate consequences

NACI recommends that the second stage of immunizations in Canada include:

  • Health care workers not included in the initial rollout

  • Residents and staff of all other congregate settings (e.g., quarters for migrant workers, correctional facilities, homeless shelters)

  • Essential workers (e.g., police, firefighters, food production)

The second stage, as outlined by NACI, is when there is sufficient supply available to vaccinate the four populations that are recommended to receive the initial doses.

Earlier this week Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, vice-president of logistics and operations at the Public Health Agency of Canada and head of vaccine distribution efforts, said Canada is expected to receive 208,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine per week for the rest of January and an additional 171,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine the week of Jan. 11.

Blair stressed that this these initial doses of COVID-19 vaccine that will be distributed in federal correctional institutions will only be used for those identified as “particularly high risk.”

“We have a responsibility there to make sure that we provide them with appropriate and adequate care and apply exactly the same criteria that the [National Advisory Committee on Immunization] has articulated for them, as they have for other Canadians,” Blair said.

According to the latest data from the Correctional Service Canada, there have been 1,149 positive COVID-19 cases in inmates to date and three death. There are currently 144 active cases across Canada.

Canada's Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair speaks during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada May 1, 2020. REUTERS/Blair Gable
Canada's Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair speaks during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada May 1, 2020. REUTERS/Blair Gable

‘They can't do anything to protect themselves’

Last month Emilie Coyle, executive director of the Canadian Association of the Elizabeth Fry Societies, which monitors the conditions of confinement in Canada’s six federal institutions for women, explained that people in prison are “sitting ducks” living in a congregate environments.

“People in prison are extremely vulnerable,...they can't leave, they can't do anything to protect themselves,” Coyle said. “Our position has strongly been you must come to your conclusions around how you're going to handle this pandemic rooted with the humanity of the people at the core.”

“Unfortunately, we seem to think of prisoners as disposable human beings but they are, by and large, people who have suffered and are vulnerable in their lives, which has led them to becoming criminalized in the first place.”

Coyle added that the population that Canadian Association of the Elizabeth Fry Societies works with have suffered trauma, including gender-based violence, physical violence and poverty.

“We're talking about people who have been criminalized for our failings as a society, and then we're further punishing them by making them vulnerable to a lack of care in the prisons when we deal with the pandemic, so this has been a real frustration for us,” she said.

Since March 2020, the Canadian Association of the Elizabeth Fry Societies has been calling for the depopulation of prisons in an effort to help keep people safe. Coyle highlighted that limited movement has impacted the mental health of inmates and restricted volunteer programs due to COVID-19 measures are impacting their ability to prepare for parole, which leads to delays in that process.

Union calls for correctional officers to be prioritized

The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers is also asking for more clarity around the Correctional Service Canada’s vaccine plan.

“We don’t have many details on what’s going to come next,” a statement from Jeff Wilkins, national president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officer reads.

“Will the Correctional Officers be vaccinated before any of the general population of inmates who are under 70 years of age?... Will CSC prioritize vaccinations where there are outbreaks?”

Correctional Service Canada has identified that staff will be vaccinated by their home province or territory.

“CSC and [the Public Health Agency of Canada] are working closely with the provinces and territories to facilitate access to the COVID-19 vaccine for staff in accordance with the priority groups identified by NACI,” a news release from Correctional Service Canada reads.

The union is calling for correctional officers to be vaccinated at their workplace as soon as possible, adding that they are “disappointed” they were not consulted about this vaccination program.

“It’s time the Federal Government and the Correctional Service of Canada starts recognizing the dedication of its employees,” a statement from Wilkins reads. “Our members are working in institutions right now that have been declared as pandemic sites, and they are not being afforded the protection of a vaccine. They should be a priority.”

“Since March, Correctional Officers have been on the front line to protect the Canadian population. As front-line workers, they had to work with COVID-19 infected people, placing them at high risk for infection. We didn’t get any compensation for this, no hazard pay, which was given to other front-line workers.”

Check out our COVID-19 in Canada topic page for latest news, tips, health updates, cases and more.