Canadian caste system | John L. Hill

By John L. Hill

Law360 Canada (July 10, 2023, 11:16 AM EDT) --
John Hill
John L. Hill
The American author Isabel Wilkerson in her book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, places the blame for much of the racism she endured growing up as a Black woman on having to exist in a society where there is an unchallenged expectation that one is or is not a member of a dominant race and one should be compliant with his or her rank in society. It is akin to the caste system in India, and American laws became a direct model for Nazi Germany to look upon Aryans as superior to subordinates living amongst them such as Jews and homosexuals.

A Canadian reader of the treatise might tend to disregard Wilkerson’s theory as inapplicable in our country. Should we? As a long-time practitioner of prison law, I spot many of the issues that Wilkerson had to deal with as applicable to society’s view of penitentiary inmates.

A recent CBC story documented how a young Indigenous offender, Matthew Michel, begged staff at a Regina youth detention centre to kill him since he could no longer mentally deal with his head encased in a motorcycle helmet and his body bound by a device called the Wrap. His torso, legs and ankles were bound and connected to a shoulder harness that kept his body at a nearly 45-degree angle with his hands cuffed behind his back locked to a carabiner. The Wrap was used by jail staff to punish Michel into compliance. The Wrap is authorized for use in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and New Brunswick. The day following the airing of the CBC report, this merciless way of treating youthful offenders made headlines as far away as Australia.

The program sparked a petition urging the federal and provincial governments to abolish the Wrap as being a torture device. The petition noted: “The Wrap, which immobilizes a youth into forced compliance, threatens their physical and psychological well-being and growth. It is essential to acknowledge that youth in detention are already vulnerable, having experienced various abuses and traumas contributing to their custody and detention, particularly for Indigenous youth. Subjecting them to further harm through such a restrictive and punitive technique is unjust and counterproductive.”

Infliction of bodily pain, even death, was excusable in a caste system that sees the subordinate as subhuman. Nazi Germany transported Jews to concentration camps in cattle cars. Are we any better?

A case is pending in our courts involving a Collins Bay inmate, Dennis Edgar, who was allowed to attend his mother’s funeral on an escorted pass. The Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) transported the inmate from Kingston to Windsor in a van wherein he was seated about one foot off the floor which caused his knees to be elevated above the level of his buttocks, thereby focusing his entire body weight on the low extremity of his back. His feet and arms were also handcuffed, but there was no chain between the two cuffs. Edgar complained to the accompanying CSC officers about back pain on the trips to and from Windsor but no action was taken to alleviate that pain or make him more comfortable. The bouncing caused or exacerbated back problems requiring surgery. Transporting humans like animals is also indicative of how a dominant group treats their subordinates in a caste system. This form of transportation has been criticized by the correctional investigator, but no action has been taken to make the movement of inmates more humane.

Public attitudes were again tested when it became known that Paul Bernardo was to be moved from maximum security to medium security. The “get tough on crime” crowd could not be appeased.

Opposition Leader Pierre Poilievre has gone on record as saying the inmate should “rot” in a maximum-security prison “until he leaves in a coffin.” Even though the operating policy of the Correctional Service of Canada is that inmates go to prison “as punishment not for punishment,” popular sympathy is to look upon prisoners as less than human, undeserving of rehabilitative programming and being treated worse than animals.

Isabel Wilkerson suggests the rise of calls for extremism and displays of right-wing fanaticism are no different from attitudes that prevailed in Nazi Germany. It is politically popular to embrace this form of rhetoric. According to Wilkerson, it’s in America’s DNA. Is it in ours as well?

John L. Hill practised and taught prison law until his retirement. He holds a J.D. from Queen’s and LL.M. in constitutional law from Osgoode Hall. He is also the author of Pine Box Parole: Terry Fitzsimmons and the Quest to End Solitary Confinement (Durvile & UpRoute Books). Contact him at

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the authors firm, its clients, Law 360 Canada, LexisNexis Canada, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice. 

Interested in writing for us? To learn more about how you can add your voice to Law360 Canada, contact Analysis Editor Peter Carter at or call 647-776-6740.