Prisoners Challenge Prison Chaplaincy Cuts in B.C. Supreme Court
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Abbotsford, B.C. – March 14, 2013 – Eight current and former prisoners are challenging
Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews’ decision to cancel all part-time prison chaplain
contracts, calling it unconstitutional and discriminatory. This decision has effectively cut
chaplain services to non-Christian prisoners in British Columbia.
The civil claim, which will be heard in the Supreme Court of British Columbia, contends
that the Correctional Service of Canada (“CSC”) has failed to provide prisoners with
reasonable access to religion and spirituality. It argues that the Charter of Rights and
Freedoms obliges the federal government to provide correctional services without
“Prisoners do not lose their right to freely exercise and express their religious and
spiritual beliefs by virtue of their incarceration,” said DJ Larkin of the West Coast Prison
Justice Society, a non-profit organization which is also party to the court action. “For
many prisoners, having access to a chaplain who represents his or her faith is that
prisoner’s life-link to ensuring that CSC respects those rights.”
In September 2012, Minister Toews directed the cancellation of all part-time prison
chaplains in British Columbia. Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist and Wiccan chaplaincy
contracts were cancelled, leaving only Christian prison chaplains in the province. The
prisoners and former prisoners who are parties to the challenge are members of these
In March 2013, all part-time prison chaplain contracts will be cancelled in the rest of
Canada. Only full-time chaplains will continue under contract, all but two of whom
represent Christian faiths.
Minister Toews also directed that the government will not be entering into any more
part-time prison chaplaincy contracts in the future, stating that it is not in the public
interest to expend taxpayer funds on such services.
“Regardless of the intent behind this decision,” Larkin argued, “the result has been to
leave non-Christians without the ability to freely practice their religion, leaving them
feeling alienated and demeaned.”
The challenge also submits that the Correctional Service has failed to facilitate sufficient
access to minority faith chaplains, religious services or spiritual items since the cuts.
Minister Toews has stated that, moving forward, chaplaincy services will be provided to
minority faith prisoners through multi-faith chaplaincy and volunteers.
Cantor Michael Zoosman, a part-time Jewish Chaplain for CSC from August 2009 to
March 2012, countered that in order to replicate the services he provided to prisoners, a
volunteer would require years of study of Hebrew and Jewish liturgy, law, history, and
“In my experience many, if not most, prison chaplains have not undertaken accredited,
formal training to work in multi-faith environments and are not formally trained to reject
the notion of proselytizing,” Cantor Zoosman added, warning that some chaplains do
make attempts to convert prisoners.
After the cuts were announced, Andrew Monnette, a Muslim and former prisoner at
Mountain Institution’s segregation unit, submitted multiple requests for access to basic
religious effects – such as a prayer mat and Qur’an – to no avail. When he asked the
Christian chaplain for help, he was offered a Bible.
Monnette said he felt that Islam, as compared to Christianity, was not being respected.
“No one at CSC has been able to help me,” he said, “And no one has been able to tell
me who I can go to for help.”
Monnette is not alone: Donald Cundell, a prisoner in a medium security institution,
recently had his Wiccan altar seized as contraband. He has been told that he has mere
days to seek authorization from a Wiccan spiritual leader to have the altar, or else it will
The civil claim emphasizes that, for prisoners of minority faiths, minority faith chaplains
play a direct role in their rehabilitation and reintegration – for example, providing inprison
spiritual support and connecting prisoners with community and family resources.
“I don’t know what would have happened if I didn’t start practicing Islam,” Monnette
said, noting that his faith led to him reconnecting with this family.
“I believe, and have been told by prisoners, that the one-on-one services that I provided
helped to strengthen individuals in the knowledge that their community had not forgotten
or abandoned them,” Cantor Zoosman said.
“I saw religion become the beacon of hope and a bulwark for the rehabilitation of many
WEST COAST PRISON JUSTICE SOCIETY
The West Coast Prison Justice Society (“WCPJS”) is a non-profit society incorporated in
1994 under the laws of British Columbia. The purposes of the WCPJS include the
promotion of the rule of law within prisons and penitentiaries, and the fair and equal
treatment of prisoners.
For more information please contact
DJ Larkin, West Coast Prison Justice Society
Ms. Larkin can facilitate contact with involved parties, including:
Andrew Monnette, Muslim former prisoner and party to the challenge
Cantor Michael Zoosman, former Jewish Chaplain with CSC
Ms. Larkin may be able to facilitate contact with other involved parties who are still in
prison upon request.