NWT settles lawsuit alleging sexual abuse at Yellowknife jail
The Northwest Territories government has settled a lawsuit with a former inmate who said he was sexually exploited by staff at the North Slave Correctional Complex.
Kelly Canadian filed a suit claiming $1.25 million in damages in February 2019, alleging he was assaulted 30 to 40 times by a corrections worker while incarcerated at Yellowknife’s jail during 2016 and 2017.
The suit claimed “systemic failures” allowed abuse to take place at the jail: chiefly that the territorial government had failed to properly screen corrections staff, ensure oversight was in place, or provide follow-up procedures for victims of sexual abuse.
As a result, the claim stated, Canadian suffered damages including flashbacks of the incidents, psychological and emotional trauma, and difficulty trusting authority figures.
In response to the suit, the territorial government filed a June 2019 statement of defence denying wrongdoing.
Cabin Radio has learned that, after nearly three years, the case was recently settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
According to court documents, lawyers for Canadian and the territorial government agreed to dismiss the case in December 2021. Plaintiffs may dismiss lawsuits for a variety of reasons, including as part of a settlement agreement.
Canadian told Cabin Radio he could not comment on the specifics of the case due to confidentiality requirements, but said he is glad the matter has concluded and expressed gratitude toward his lawyers.
“It’s like a huge weight off my shoulders,” he said.
Canadian said he is now trying to access treatment for trauma and addictions. He hopes to study cosmetology, become a stylist, and open his own business.
“I have a long healing journey to achieve,” he said. “I have a bright, positive-outlook kind of future in mind.”
Steven Cooper, the lawyer who represented Canadian in his suit, told Cabin Radio he could not comment.
In a statement to Cabin Radio, Ngan Trinh, a spokesperson for the NWT Department of Justice, said the department also could not comment on the case for reasons of confidentiality.
The territorial government does not publicly disclose how much it spends on confidential settlements.
In June 2021, the CBC reported the NWT government had denied a request for information regarding the total amount spent on settlement agreements over the past 10 years, saying it does not track that information.
Allegations by Canadian of inappropriate sexual conduct involving two staff members at the jail were first made public by NNSL in late 2018.
The Department of Justice subsequently confirmed a workplace investigation into those claims was completed and the two individuals involved were no longer employed in the corrections service.
No criminal charges were ever filed in relation to the allegations.
In a separate case in 2018, the CBC reported Canadian won a $5,000 human rights settlement alleging jail employees discriminated against him because of his sexuality and called him derogatory names. Canadian is openly gay and a member of the Chipewyan First Nation.
The cases brought public attention to the challenges LGBTQ+ Indigenous people can face and systemic issues of sexualized violence in the country’s criminal justice system.
Canada’s correctional investigator, Dr Ivan Zinger, stated in his 2019-2020 annual report that sexual coercion and violence are a “pervasive but underreported problem” in federal prisons, partly because many victims are afraid to come forward.
Dr Zinger said people who identify as LGBTQ+, women, and those with a history of trauma, abuse, disability, or mental health issues are disproportionally impacted.
Little official data on the issue is available, however, as the Correctional Service of Canada does not publicly report, collect, record, or track those statistics, and has never researched the subject.
“We know that sexualized violence and abuse thrive in a culture of silence or organizational indifference,” Zinger wrote. “I was disturbed to find considerable gaps in the Correctional Service of Canada’s approach to detecting, investigating, and preventing sexual coercion and violence behind bars.”
Zinger has called on the federal government to fund a national study on sexualized violence in prisons and introduce legislation similar to the US Prison Rape Elimination Act, which developed national standards on preventing sexualized violence in custodial settings. Zinger also recommended that Canada’s correctional service be required to publicly report on and respond to incidents of sexualized violence, and create its own policy to protect vulnerable groups.
“Sexualized violence is a systemic problem in prison, and is not tolerated in any other part of Canadian society. It is time that we took steps to eradicate it from our prison system,” he wrote.
The correctional service of Canada and Bill Blair, then the minister of public safety and emergency preparedness, committed to conducting research on a strategy to detect, prevent, and respond to sexual coercion and violence in prisons.
According to a 2018 investigative report by the Edmonton Journal, not all provinces and territories keep track of the same information in their jails. The Journal’s report found there were three sexual assault allegations in NWT correctional facilities between 2013 and 2018, one of which resulted in a charge being laid.
In response to questions about measures the territorial government has taken to protect inmates, Trinh said all NWT corrections staff are trained in professionalism, ethics, harassment, and workplace conflict when they are recruited and during refresher training.
“The safety and security of any inmate in any corrections facility is paramount and a priority of the corrections service,” Trinh wrote.