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The Grievance System: Through the Eyes of the Arbour Commission

The effectiveness of the grievance system came under particular scrutiny in the course of the Arbour Commission's inquiry into events at the Prison for Women in 1994. Madam Justice Arbour noted that "virtually all of the issues that have arisen in the course of this inquiry were raised in the first instance by the inmates in complaints, grievances, and in some cases, in letters addressed to senior Correctional Service officials" ( Arbour Report at 150). Some of her harshest criticisms concerned the ineffectiveness of grievance procedures:

Some of these grievances were never answered at all. Those that were answered were almost always answered late, in some cases several months after the answers were due. In a number of instances, the grievances were responded to by an inappropriate person: either someone not at the appropriate level to respond, or someone who could not be expected to have access to the relevant facts. There is no system to effectively prioritize those grievances where the only effective response would be one received on an urgent basis.

However, by far the most troubling aspect of the responses to these grievances, which raised important issues of fundamental inmate rights, was the number of times in which the responses failed to deal properly with the substance of the issues raised. In some cases, the responses failed to appreciate the legal significance of the issues raised by the inmates. In some cases, the responses indicated a failure to properly ascertain the underlying facts. In many instances, one was left with the impression that an inmate's version of events was treated as inherently unreliable. . . ( Arbour Report at 150-51)

Madam Justice Arbour noted that the Correctional Investigator "has pointed out for years the chronic untimeliness of the response to the complaints and grievance process in the Correctional Service" and concluded:

As revealed in this case, the process is highly bureaucratic. Particularly at the appellate level, both Regional and National, responsibility for the disposition of grievances is often given to people with neither the knowledge nor the means of acquiring it and, worse, with no real authority to remedy the problem should they be prepared to acknowledge its existence. This could be redressed by the current initiative to promote lower level resolution. However, this strategy will be equally ineffective unless there is a profound change in the mindset of the entire organization. At present, it would seem that the admission of error is perceived as an admission of defeat by the Correctional Service. In that climate, no internal method of dispute resolution will succeed. (Arbour Report at 162)

As an essential part of a reformed grievance process, Madam Justice Arbour recommended that the Commissioner of Corrections "personally review some, if not all, grievances brought to him, as third level grievances, as the most effective, if not the only method for him to keep abreast of the conditions of life in institutions under his care and supervision"; she further recommended that "should the Commissioner be unwilling or unable to participate significantly in the disposition of third level grievances, such grievances be channelled to a source outside the Correctional Service for disposition, and that the disposition be binding on the Correctional Service" (Arbour Report at 257). This recommendation for binding independent arbitration can be traced to the earlier recommendation of the Correctional Law Review that binding arbitration, as a necessary part of a fair and effective grievance process, be incorporated into the CCRA. That recommendation was not adopted as a result of the CSC's resistance to it. The CSC was no less resistant to Madam Justice Arbour's recommendations with respect to the grievance process; they too were rejected.

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