Journalist barred from jails in Canada’s east-Arctic wants ban quashed

Thomas Rohner has worked as a journalist in Nunavut since 2014, first at Nunatsiaq News and recently as a freelance journalist for Vice News and the Toronto Star. (David Gunn/CBC)
A Nunavut journalist is trying to reverse a government decision to ban him from all of the territory’s jails, by challenging the ban in court.

Thomas Rohner has been writing about problems in Nunavut’s criminal justice system for five years — first as a reporter for Nunatsiaq News and more recently as a freelancer for Vice News, the Toronto Star and CBC News.

In mid-December he was banned from in-person visits to all jails. He was still allowed to speak on the phone with inmates, but says his messages aren’t always getting through.

“I think it’s really important to get first person accounts of complicated and important issues and situations,” Rohner said.

In asking for the courts to force a review of the decision last month, Rohner’s lawyers say he was not given an opportunity to respond to the government’s complaints against him, the ban violates the section of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that allows for freedom of the press, and Nunavummiut are entitled to know what’s going on with inmates.

“I know a lot of people find it hard to believe that prisoners need to be given a voice or a platform for their voice, but I think that’s crucial if we’re going to try to understand criminal justice on a bigger scale to understand what each part is saying,” Rohner told CBC.

The ban was enacted by Nunavut’s Director of Corrections in mid-December, on the advice of the warden for the Baffin Correctional Centre in Iqaluit, the territorial capital.

Jail wardens have broad powers under Nunavut’s Corrections Act to ban people. According to Justice Minister Jeannie Ehaloak, Rohner is the only person banned from Nunavut jails.

The Nunavut Court of Justice was the only way he could appeal the decision, Rohner said.

Jeannie Ehaloak is Nunavut’s Minister of Justice. (David Gunn/CBC)
Reasons for ban

Rohner believes he was banned after he published two stories on Vice News that criticized the length of time prisoners spent segregated from the rest of the prison population.

He said he knows the government was unhappy with the stories, because he received a phone call from the Premier’s press secretary, saying he didn’t include enough of the government’s side in the story.

Ehaloak says he was banned because he passed “contraband” to prisoners during a visit.

The contraband was printed out copies of stories Rohner had written about the inmates.

The deputy minister of Justice Bill MacKay acknowledged the contraband was just paper, but said paper needs to be checked by security in advance because it could hide razor blades, drugs, or the contact information of someone the inmate isn’t allowed to speak to in the conditions of their sentence.

Visiting rules

The government and Rohner disagree on whether Rohner should have known this was a rule at the Baffin Correctional Centre.

“Our policies and procedures have never changed,” Ehaloak said.

The Baffin Correctional Centre is the largest of Nunavut’s jails. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

“There’s always been a lack of consistency with what the rules were and I’ve just tried to adapt to the situation at hand,” Rohner said.

He says sometimes he’s been asked for I.D. other times, he hasn’t been. Sometimes he’s subjected to a search — other times no.

“It’s no secret that the staff at BCC, for years, have been dealing with a building that is falling apart — a building that has no space for programming. Staff are generally under-trained. They work a ton of overtime. There’s a lot of turnover,” Rohner said.

“I understand that visits add another component to their job that’s already kind of bursting at the seams.”

Press organizations write letters of support

The warden told the department that inmates were riled up after Rohner’s visits and that Rohner was “belligerent” on occasions, but Ehaloak says she is not aware of the specifics of those incidents.

Rohner says neither is he. He says one time an inmate backed out of scheduled interview, because he feared he was to going to be jumped by other inmates, but Rohner says he wants to follow the rules so he can continue to visit the jails.

As a freelance journalist, he’s upset by the attack on his character, but has people backing him up, including Canadian Senator Kim Pate, the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, and the Canadian Association of Journalists.

Ehaloak says the department has started work on a waiver to the ban that would allow Rohner to return to the jails.

“We’re always open to the media. We’re always we welcome any media to come into our facilities to review the programs and services that we have for our inmates,” Ehaloak said.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Inmates in Northern Canadian jail say conditions deteriorating since June riot, CBC News

Finland: Press Freedom Index: Finland slides again, Norway stays ahead, Yle News

Norway: Norwegian media Independent Barents Observer reportedly blocked in Russia, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Russia’s Lefortovo prison: a haunting song from the Barents region, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Rural citizen journalism and fake news in the spotlight in North Sweden, Radio Sweden

United States: Proposed Alaska budget: send inmates out of state to cut correctional services spending, Alaska Public Media

Sara Frizzell, CBC News

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