A court case involving a convicted sex offender serving time in Matsqui Institution in Abbotsford has raised and answered the question of whether books written in a language other than English and French should be available to inmates.
The short answer: no.
The longer version of that answer is found in a Federal Court of Canada ruling released Jan. 27 that involves Tanzirul Alam, an inmate at Matsqui since 2017 after being found guilty in Alberta of 13 offences, including sexual assault, sexual exploitation, luring, making child pornography and attempting to obstruct justice.
Alam’s victims were three young women who were in their teens at the time of the offences. He was also found guilty of possessing and transmitting child pornography. The offences took place over a period of three years.
In October 2020, Alam filed a formal complaint with Correctional Services Canada (CSC) for not having any books in Matsqui’s library in the Bengali language. Alam is a citizen of Bangladesh and his native language is Bengali.
He argued the library’s collection of books, which were mainly in English and French, “did not reflect the linguistic diversity of the inmates” at Matsqui, according to details in Justice Simon Fothergill’s ruling.
Alam, who acted on his own behalf in the legal proceeding, said Correctional Services Canada was legally obliged to provide inmates with books in their native languages pursuant to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
A Correctional Services Canada official named Shawna White rejected Alam’s complaint.
“CSC does not have to provide library resources in all languages with the exception of English and French — Canada’s two official languages,” White wrote in November 2020. “However, CSC makes a reasonable effort to have materials in the majority language of the population.”
Alam wasn’t satisfied with White’s response and filed a grievance with Matsqui’s warden. He requested a reversal of White’s decision and a specific timeline for making Bengali books available to him.
Ten Bengali books
In January 2021, the warden — who is not named in the court document — responded to Alam’s grievance, saying the lack of availability of Bengali books was not discriminatory, and that it was not possible to provide inmates with books in all languages due to funding constraints.
However, the warden informed Alam that CSC’s ethno-cultural services had purchased 10 Bengali books for inter-library loan, and concluded that no further action was necessary on the inmate’s complaint.
“Should you wish to borrow any of these materials, please submit an inmate request and we can ask for an inter-library loan,” the warden wrote.
Alam followed the warden’s advice and submitted a request in February 2021 for three Bengali books kept at Pacific Institution/Regional Treatment Centre, which is located on the same property as Matsqui.
Five days after his request, he borrowed one Bengali book in exchange for a law book titled, Federal Courts Practice 2019. Despite having access to Bengali books, Alam then filed a notice of application for judicial review in April 2021 of the “impugned CSC actions and related grievance response.”
That filing led to a “Case Management Judge,”or CMJ, rejecting Alam’s application, saying the CSC had provided the inmate “with an adequate alternative remedy that he had yet to exhaust” — access to Bengali books.
Legal action against Attorney General of Canada
Fast forward to Jan. 27 and Fothergill ruled the CMJ’s decision to strike Alam’s application was “procedurally fair, factually supported and legally correct.” He dismissed the appeal.
“Both parties have sought costs,” Fothergill said.
“Mr. Alam suggested that if he were the successful party, then an appropriate award of costs would be the all-inclusive sum of $1,500, representing the costs of both this proceeding and the one before the CMJ. CSC did not specify a quantum of costs. Given Mr. Alam’s position on costs, and the CMJ’s previous costs award of $750, I exercise my discretion to award further costs to CSC in the all-inclusive sum of $750.”
The court case was not the first initiated by Alam, with him taking legal action recently against Matsqui Institution and the Attorney General of Canada over a complaint related to computer access and recreation time during the pandemic-imposed restrictions.
He lost that battle, too.
“With the easing of concerns regarding the pandemic, the restrictions on computer use and recreation were also eased,” wrote B.C. Supreme Court Justice Alan Ross in a July 2022 ruling.
“Hence, the circumstances which formed the basis of Mr. Alam’s initial complaint no longer exist. His claim is bound to fail on this ground.”
Alam was sentenced to 12 years in prison on June 23, 2017. But his sentence was reduced to eight years and eight months for time served in pre-trial custody.