August 15, 2018

Inmates lose class-action lawsuit over protest T-shirts

T-shirt logo
The logo on T-shirts at heart of a failed class-action lawsuit by federal prisoners. The T-shirts depicte two hands clutching jail bars inside the inverted Maple Leaf, which is circled by barbed wire.

TORONTO – A group of federal inmates has lost a $1.25-million class-action lawsuit over the right to wear protest T-shirts with upside-down Maple Leafs to mark the annual Prisoners’ Justice Day.

Ontario Superior Court Justice Barbara Conway refused to certify the class-action lawsuit, led by two convicted murderers, and ruled they should file a grievance with prison authorities instead.

Although the judge found that the action met four out of five requirements for certification, she determined that a class action ”is not the preferable procedure for resolving these claims.”

Conway also struck out the inmates’ claim for ”misfeasance in public office” for seizing the T-shirts as ordered in 2010 by then-public safety minister Vic Toews.

”The substance of the inmates’ claim is that the Crown breached their Charter rights – freedom of expression – when it prohibited the shirts,” Conway wrote. ”I am satisfied that the grievance process has the potential to provide a ”just and effective” remedy for this claim.”

Instead of filing a lawsuit, she explained that a successful grievance would force the prison to return their shirts and revoke the ban.

Prisoners’ Justice Day, marked on Aug. 10, commemorates the deaths of inmates inside prisons due to abuse or negligence by correctional officials. Since 1976, federal inmates across Canada have recognized this day through peaceful protests, including hunger strikes, work stoppages and letter writing.

Jason Lauzon, a ”lifer” at Joyceville Prison, was involved in the design and shipment of 400 T-shirts, which were worn by 150 inmates in 2010. The T-shirts depicted two hands clutching jail bars inside the inverted Maple Leaf, which is circled by barbed wire.

Two weeks later Toews castigated the ”misuse” of the national symbol as ”offensive, unacceptable and dishonourable,” ordering that the episode wouldn’t be repeated. The 150 shirts were declared contraband and had to be surrendered within a period or else inmates were threatened with discipline, the judge noted.

Two years later, the inmates launched a class-action lawsuit, alleging their Charter right of freedom of expression was violated. The lawsuit also alleges that the prison guards’ confiscation of their shirts ”amounted to trespass to chattels and misfeasance in public office.”

The two ”representative plaintiffs” in the suit were Lauzon, 43, and John Chaif, 59. Lauzon was convicted of second-degree murder in 1997 and is serving a life sentence. He has spent 17 years in custody, almost all of that time in Joyceville.

Chaif, who is serving a life sentence for first-degree murder after a 1983 conviction, has spent 31 years in custody and been in Joyceville since ’97.

Their lawyers, Shane Martinez and Davin Charney, said they will ”respectfully appeal” the court’s decision.

”We’re hoping (a future court ruling will) discourage the government from engaging in this type of censorship,” Martinez said in an interview Tuesday.

”The real reason for seizing the shirts because its message was ”dishonourable” and they seized, ban and censored shirts for a political purpose, which is a denial of the inmates’ Charter rights of expression,” he said.


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