A lawyer who successfully challenged the B.C. government on spiritual access for an inmate is hammering the Harper government’s decision to nix non-Christian chaplains in federal prisons.
Lisa Kerr served as the co-counsel to a B.C. prisoner denied access to an aboriginal spiritual advisor while he served less than two years in three provincial jails. The advisor was on staff but was not granted to inmate Travis Kelly.
In July 2011, the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal ruled in favour of Kelly. The quasi-judicial body, which reviews human rights complaints, found he had been discriminated against because of unequal access.
“Section 15 of the charter and Section 3 of the Canadian Human Rights Act both require prisoners have to have equal access regardless of their religion,” Kerr said. “The case that I did … was a provincial case. This is a federal agency. There is no reason to believe the law is any different.”
Kerr’s criticism comes after the government signalled a policy shift following a review of the federal chaplaincy program. The feds said the review was completed to “ensure taxpayer dollars are being used wisely and appropriately.”
Federal Liberals have criticized the government’s decision to cut non-Christian chaplains as a violation of the charter. The NDP has also slammed the change.
Candice Bergen, parliamentary secretary to Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, said non-Christian prisoners will continue to have access to chaplains on a “voluntary basis.”
The government also said there are about 2,500 volunteers who currently provide religious services within the correctional system.
Kerr said she has concerns about how the volunteer system will operate and cites the importance of exposing prisoners to religious services.
“There has been many, many prisoners who have encountered religious life for the first time while incarcerated and who have found a spiritual and moral side of themselves,” Kerr said.