Nunavut drops ban on journalist visiting territorial jails

“I’m glad that I can get back to doing my job”

Iqaluit’s Baffin Correctional Centre has been off limits to journalist Thomas Rohner since last December. But Rohner challenged the ban and will now be able to visit inmates again there and at other territorial jails. (Photo by Thomas Rohner)

By Jane George

A freelance investigative journalist can once again visit Nunavut’s correctional facilities.

Thomas Rohner of Iqaluit, a former Nunatsiaq News reporter, had been unable to do that since last December, when Jean-Pierre Deroy, Nunavut’s director of corrections, said Rohner could no longer visit any inmates in territorial custody.

The issue has now been settled to the “mutual satisfaction” of Rohner and Nunavut’s justice minister and director of corrections, according to an order filed on May 8 at the Nunavut Court of Justice in Iqaluit.

“I’m glad that I can get back to doing my job, which in this case is reporting on the experiences of those in Nunavut jails,” Rohner said.

“Nunavut’s incarceration rates continue to rise while the national average declines. Canada’s jails are increasingly filled with those already marginalized—the poor, for example, or the racialized. Indigenous people today make up less than five per cent of Canada’s population, yet make up 30 per cent of the prison population.

“These are complicated realities that need to be explored by journalists and prisoners who have found their own voice.”

Thomas Rohner says he’s happy with the settlement that will allow him to continue his contacts with prisoners in Nunavut jails. (Photo by Jane George)

The court document says Rohner will be “permitted to recommence visiting inmates at all of Nunavut’s Correctional Facilities subject to ordinary approval procedures.”

The settlement said that corrections staff will consider his future request to visit inmates “in good faith.”

“The conditions at the Baffin Correctional Centre in particular are not conducive to rehabilitating prisoners, according to prisoners who have continued to call me to voice concerns about the lack of programming and access to fresh air,” Rohner said.

In the court document, the justice minister and director of corrections acknowledged “the impact the decision had upon Mr. Rohner and his ability to report on matters of public interest.”

They promised to develop a policy on visits, which they said will be applied “consistently.”

Rohner’s work includes a story published by Vice last September that featured inmates at the BCC speaking about their experiences in solitary confinement.

Deroy alleged in his letter that Rohner’s visits had escalated the “negative behaviours” of inmates and hampered their rehabilitation plans, without offering details.

He also alleged Rohner had been passing “contraband” to inmates: these were copies of stories Rohner had written. Deroy said there would be “no appeal of this decision.”

The action received attention in the Nunavut legislature during its last sitting when Iqaluit-Niaqunngu MLA Pat Angnakak said the Government of Nunavut was behaving like an authoritarian regime by banning a journalist from the territory’s jails.

Angnakak said she believes in open and transparent government and that “taking an action like this struck me as something you’d see in a place like Venezuela or Russia, not here in Canada.”

Rohner, who received many letters of support, always denied the allegations against him.

“I was lucky enough to get the assistance of pro bono lawyers to overturn this ban, legal services valued at nearly $60,000,” Rohner said. “The prisoners whose stories I was reporting, whose voices were effectively silenced, and whose freedom of expression may have been infringed, were not so lucky.

“The government has promised to post prison rules, communicate those rules clearly and to enforce them consistently. They’ve also promised to develop a policy respectful of media. These are reasons to be optimistic that the unfortunate situation that happened won’t be repeated.”

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(14) Comments:

  1. Posted by #Woke Folk on

    I’m a little ambivalent about Rohner in all this. On the one hand I agree he should never have been banned, though I admit to not knowing the situation up close. I would also say there are times and will be grounds on which such a ban is not only desirable but necessary, though these would be in unusual circumstances (again, not to say this was one of those, as it does not appear to be so). On the other hand, his perspective appears so ideologically driven that it comes off as facile and lacking the nuance to relay balanced and meaningful information. Instead we given packets of info relayed through a consistent set of suppositions, always taken for granted.

    • Posted by Gendry on

      The second half of your post is a little confusing. What are you saying?

      • Posted by #Woke Folk on

        We all approach the world with certain preconceived ideas about how and why things are the way they are. Journalists are no different. As consumers of media we should be mindful of and look for the basic assumptions that writers bring to and apply to the narratives they package and present to us. For me, Rohner’s work follows a certain pattern and applies the same assumptions routinely. For example, his work often points to imbalances of power which take exploitation as a given, which underlies and supports larger narratives between outsiders and insiders, us vs them, etc… this is a commonly used template by the way, I see its origins in grievance studies and postmodern academia. For the reporter it also earns a sort of moral currency that buys they out of the common, oppressive culture, and into the class of allies and social justice advocates where they are esteemed and absolved from the original sins (most by confession) of the society from where they came (itself an expression of colonial power). To me it’s all a bit contrived and performative.

  2. Posted by Concerned Inuk on

    The GN is very short-sighted in its public relations strategy. Banning journalists from BCC isn’t even a band-aid solution, it’s a cover-up solution.

    Justice isn’t the only department that has done this. Knocking the couple with their young kids who camped outside the Legislative Assembly because of homelessness is another poor example of the GN’s public relations strategy!

    A lot of unqualified bureaucrats who don’t care about the people!

  3. Posted by hunter3 on

    I don’t think prisoners and convicted criminals deserve voices. Period.

    • Posted by on

      Some prisoners are not yet tried, they need a voice.

      Some prisoners are wrongly convicted, their story has to be heard.

    • Posted by Concerned Inuk on

      Maybe you weren’t sexually abused as a child or torn apart by alcohol and drugs to cope with the turmoil in your life.

      Do you really think all BCC inmates chose to experience everything they’ve gone through in their life?

      Have you ever put yourself in someone else’s shoes, or do you think even going there is beneath you?

  4. Posted by help on

    While I agree that prisoners have rights, there are too many social issues and too little cash to deal with all of them. The GN has to prioritize their issues and allocate funds accordingly. So, which do you choose? Help those trying to help themselves? Help students get a better education? Help people going on medical travel? Help hungry children get more food? Help elders remain in their home communities right to end? Helping prisoners would be much lower on my list.

    • Posted by iWonder on

      Interesting comment, but i’m not sure what it has to do with the issue at hand. Can you clarify?

  5. Posted by Crystal Clarity on

    Prisoners should be treated humanely. We are a modern, democratic country and our rights as Canadian citizens are sacrosanct. I feel their basic needs are looked after but we can certainly make improvements in terms of counselling, education, treatment for addictions etc…..There are countries with much better prisons than ours but far more with worse ,inhumane conditions. Prisons in the third world and the developing world are pretty horrific and even some “Developed” countries like Russia and the USA have some pretty nasty prisons. I think the inmates of BBC are by and large quite lucky.

  6. Posted by Sled dog on

    I trust the pro bono legal work was not performed by LSBN employees during working hours.

  7. Posted by Terrance Naistus on

    Imprisoned Canadian citizens retain all their rights as Canadian citizens, and the only right they have lost is their freedom. Civil death does not occur when imprisoned Canadian citizens are incarcerated, and institutions have an obligation to not offend the Rule of Law or violate Due Process of Law in dealing with imprisoned Canadian citizens. Society’s has a fundamental misunderstanding if they believe that imprisoned Canadian citizens are sent to institutions to be further mistreated, neglected, and abused. Every Canadian citizen and their individual rights are protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and for those ignorant bigots that believe otherwise – protecting the rights of one – is protecting the rights of all. Legal Rights under section 7, section 8, section 9 section 10 (a)(b)(c), section 11, section 12, section, section 13, section 14. Equality Rights under section 15 (1) (2). Enforcement under section 24 (1)(2).

  8. Posted by Concerned Inuk on

    I wonder how many of the inmates have damaged brains? Here’s what can happen if people and prisoners with damaged brains are provided the medical treatment they need

    But GN Justice just hide and ignore the problem!

    • Posted by Green Wallpaper on

      That was a good TedTalk. This is a very innovate and progressive way of looking at the problems prisoners deal with. But imagine trying to implement a program based on brain imaging and rehabilitation. Who would perform the scans? Who would deliver the programing? These are areas of expertise we don’t see anywhere in Nunavut, let alone in our jails. Not to say we shouldn’t be thinking this way, only saying it is beyond capacity. And good luck selling this to the department either way. Current trends seem to say traditional activities or bibles are the way to fix people.

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