Building Employment Strategies Together (BEST) is a program which offers a variety of support and resources to women looking to reintegrate into their communities. The BEST program is designed to build life skills, employability skills, and a supportive network for women who are, or have been, at risk of being in conflict with the law. By focusing on pre-employment and education strategies, women increase their potential and access to job training skills and educational opportunities that builds resiliency in our ever changing job market. Through both one-on-one and group support, the BEST program helps women in developing an individual plan of action that includes advocacy, community engagement and skills sharing that increases access to meet their basic needs. BEST builds and strengthens their communication skills, expands and polishes resumes, prepares women for the interview process by conducting mock interviews, and engages women in workshops on relevant topics such as financial literacy, communication styles and skills, and time management. Further, BEST helps women with career planning and job placements. The BEST program is the best step forward for women seeking support during and after being in conflict with the law.
“Jumping through hoops”: Life with a Criminal Record
Understanding the process involved for setting aside your criminal record is often stressful and scary. BEST provides our clients with information and support in understanding the steps involved throughout the entire process time, from once a charge is laid to the conclusion of a conviction, sentencing, and the process for making an application once a person becomes eligible for a Record Suspension. The process is lengthy, but absolutely necessary for employment, education, travel, immigration, child custody visitation and adoption, rental agreements, and to end personal discrimination and stigma.
In Canada, most job postings and career paths require criminal background checks. Careers in health care, educational settings, government, financial institutes, retail, and numerous other industries all can become virtually inaccessible when a person has a criminal record.
A record that shows past involvement with the criminal justice system poses a huge barrier to employment, and/or makes one vulnerable to the terms and conditions of employment in terms of wages and benefits. But, these are not the only barriers. Facing border security, promotions and volunteering opportunities, and applying for loans or insurance are other examples of things that become either impossible or incredibly difficult to obtain with a criminal record. However, through the right steps, a sealed record can become inaccessible to the public by Record Suspension, expungement suppression, or a record purge.
“When the judge says ‘you’re free to go’ it doesn’t really mean that it’s over”
In an eye-opening conversation with Cynthia, BEST’s Counsellor at Elizabeth Fry Toronto, she gave her insight as to just how difficult the pardon process in Canada can be. There are many barriers that women face, beginning with police involvement when a charge is laid.
Cynthia details that many people are not aware that an application is needed to expunge a record - it doesn’t automatically disappear. If you decide to just ‘wait it out’, you’ll be waiting until you’re at least 80 years of age because this how long criminal records are kept with the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC).
“People are also not aware of the wait period, and how and when one becomes eligible for information for an offence that can be ‘removed’. This lack of awareness about the eligibility period is one of the biggest barriers clients face.” The client needs to gather a variety of documents and many of these documents are not within their control. Gathering them takes a while and a client’s motivation to do so can vary. “It’s why we need programs like this in the first place, so people know what to do, and where to go.”
Other huge barriers are the payment of fines; the application processing fee (increased from $250 to $657.77) as of March 2021; other basic fees for fingerprinting and RCMP record of offences; and Court records and the Local Police record checks. As Cynthia mentions, “Not all of our clients can afford that. Without a job, or even with minimum wages— think about rent, food, child care, etc. Community stakeholders are really hoping that the Criminal Records Act will revert back to its former times before the ‘Tough On Crimes’ agenda was introduced by the Conservative government, as the Act has really made it a more costly and lengthier process - almost like an additional criminal sentence in itself.”
This process also doesn’t take into account the trauma, PTSD, and mental health related challenges that many women have to navigate. Often, as a result of their experiences in the criminal justice system or due to time spent in prison. “Many become dependent again on ways of coping that in the long term is not the healthiest or affordable. Addiction, mental health, depression and now in this COVID-19 pandemic, loneliness and isolation. Many have physical ailments, family issues.” Cynthia points out, “It’s a lot to bear without real support.”
“That lack of information is what keeps you chained, post-incarceration.”
There just isn’t enough public awareness out there about the record suspension process, to the point where even the individuals themselves do not really understand how to navigate the criminal justice system. Cynthia advocates for a proactive approach during this process, as she helps clients to get their paperwork together, and mentions that it’s having a Record Suspension (formerly called Pardon) that make the biggest shift in the lives of our clients.
Delays in processing times when dealing with multiple government agencies (i.e. local police stations, the Royal Canadian Mounties, pulling provincial/federal court records) all take time and money. On top of that, if an applicant commits an offence while the application is being processed, that application stops, and the applicant will have to wait until the new charge becomes eligible for a new application to the National Parole Board.
Cynthia recalls a client who underwent this process ten times, having to write letters to the Governor General and Prime Minister, and continually being referred back or denied. “Not all criminal records result in a conviction, but they still have consequences once you walk out of that courtroom - not enough people realize that.”
In non-convictional offenses, if the charges are dismissed or the person is acquitted, they need to wait five months before they can apply to have that removed. If a person receives an absolute discharge, they’ll need to wait a year before applying, and a conditional discharge involves waiting three years before applying to have it removed. After a person has been released from prison, they are not automatically released from the charges. For a summary offense conviction, the wait period is now five years, and for an indictable offense it takes ten years of waiting.
The barriers that many people face including long processing timelines, sudden hurdles, and continuous fees can sound scary, but that’s what the BEST program and pre-employment services at Elizabeth Fry Toronto were designed for: Providing women with the support they need.
“The next step is to ask yourself, ‘Even though I have a criminal record, what do I need to do?’”
Do I have enough experience? Enough education? Do I have access to the training opportunities I may need? It can be hard enough to look for and build a career without a criminal record, but what are the next steps needed if a person has been in conflict with the law? Though involvement with the criminal justice system adds a tremendous barrier to employment, that doesn’t mean there isn’t still support available.
“Group support is another really big help; supporting each other, validating each other... Even just knowing you’re not alone is a huge help.” Cynthia points out. Our support programs make connections with women to ensure that they are informed and up to-date-concerning their rights and responsibilities. Through the BEST program, “We have group role-playing, playing the boss in an interview, understanding your strengths and weaknesses, and how they’re applicable to the job you’re applying for. It’s really helpful and inspiring to watch the group participants really uplift one another.”
More than just record suspension support, Elizabeth Fry Toronto’s range of counselling service and programs are meant to help our clients rebuild their careers, “There are very valuable skills that unfortunately not everyone has had the luxury to be taught.” These types of programs and services can be a big step in helping women finding their next career step.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and safety conditions related to stay-at-home orders, the BEST program and pre-employment supports have had to adapt to an online model. Clients miss the in person, face-to-face aspect of the support groups, which has created additional challenges for some of the women. “It gets easier to mask a lot of the difficulties we’re feeling inside when on a computer screen. With pajama pants and a professional top on, it can be easier to hide what [clients] are feeling when really we should be doing the opposite.” Cynthia notes. As well, not all clients have access to internet or laptops, but we’ve been able to provide these resources to our clients in order to keep them connected to these essential supports.
She also mentions other problems that can arise when women are stuck inside, without support or any sort of connection to the outside world during these trying times, saying “They just get very discouraged sometimes.” Cynthia has noticed this when in conversation with women that try to undergo the whole process completely alone. “I try not to feed them the ‘whole elephant at one time’, but a little at a time.” Some clients have been deterred and hesitant about starting the program or the process right now because of the pandemic, but the reality is that life isn’t on hold right now. Cynthia wants to remind clients, and potential clients, that even amidst the pandemic, “We are still here, and we’re not going anywhere. Because the biggest issue is that lack of support - especially during times like these. The support groups at Elizabeth Fry Toronto are a big cushion for women to stay connected, and to reach out to ask for support when you need it. There's no shame in any of that.”
So, what can people do?
Get talking and get advocating! Many people don’t know about the various barriers people face if they have criminal records or past involvement with the criminal justice systems. Or about how more and more barriers keep increasing, like the application processing fees, fines and processing wait times. Get talking about the criminal record system, record suspension process, attend group talks – there’s multiple ways to gain knowledge and be proactive!
And for people facing these employment barriers, hoops, and hurdles that can often look like a brick wall, a proactive approach can make a difference. Reach out to the BEST program and start a conversation. Get involved. A criminal record doesn’t go away unless you take the steps to have it set aside. Then you’re really free to go.
The good news is that you don’t have to do it alone.
For more information on the Record Suspension process in Canada, please visit:
Canadian Parole Board: https://www.canada.ca/en/parole-board/services/expungements.html
Pardons Canada: https://www.pardons.org/
National Pardons Centre: https://nationalpardon.org/pardons-canada/
Written by: Kyra Kaushal, Co-op Placement Student
In conversation with: Cynthia, BEST/Pre-Employment Counsellor