Federal prison chaplains escalate fight for collective agreement

OTTAWA—Federal prison chaplains are stepping up a bid to negotiate their first collective agreement to secure better wages and working conditions.

The chaplains, who provide spiritual care to federal inmates across Canada, are applying to the government for conciliation to help reach an agreement.

The United Steelworkers union represents about 180 chaplains, from a variety of faiths and spiritual practices, following their 2019 decision to unionize.

Negotiations for a deal began in February, but chaplaincy services have since been curtailed due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19 in federal prisons.

As a result, chaplains have turned to government-assistance programs for income support.

The union says chaplains have not seen improvements to wages and working conditions since at least 2016.

In 2012, the Correctional Service of Canada outsourced management of chaplaincy services to Bridges of Canada, a private charity.

The union says contract negotiations have stalled during the pandemic.

There was no immediate response to a request for comment from Bridges of Canada.

Under federal labour law, either party to collective bargaining can notify the labour minister of an impasse and request conciliation assistance, such as mediation.

Should the conciliation process fail to yield an agreement, it could eventually result in a strike or lockout.

The prison service is allowing only emergency in-person visits from chaplains. The service says it is ensuring inmates have access to spiritual guidance from chaplains via telephones or other technology as a temporary alternative.

The chaplains, however, say few inmates even know about such options, let alone have a chance to use them. In some cases, they say, technological hurdles are preventing prisoners from getting spiritual care.

“I can’t imagine a more stressful time for the incarcerated than right now,” said Ken Neumann, the union’s national director.

“If Canadians are feeling ‘imprisoned’ at home during the pandemic, imagine the mental and spiritual state of prisoners in conditions that don’t allow for physical distancing or visits from loved ones.”

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Chaplains are concerned about the future of their program and the correctional system’s ability to attract and retain qualified and engaged chaplains, said Troy Lundblad, a union representative.

“The precarious employment status of chaplains severely impacts the ability to build trust with prisoners and to be effective in bringing comfort to men and women with otherwise little spiritual resources,” he said.