By Anjali Choudhary, March 10 2022—
What do we call individuals who preach kindness and positivity while simultaneously bullying and harming others? In the nicest of terms — hypocrites. Ironically, when these individuals are a part of large telecommunications companies pushing surface-level corporate social responsibility agendas, we shower them with the highest forms of flattery.
Every year since 2011, Bell Canada has run a widespread campaign — Bell Let’s Talk — in which it donates five cents to Canadian mental health programs for every relevant interaction. Its ultimate aim has been to reduce stigma and spark conversation around mental health.
This year’s campaign provided Canadians with a toolkit that included a “Self-Care Activity” bingo sheet with ideas to tackle mental illness like “cook a healthy meal,” “take a warm bath or shower” and “talk to a loved one about your feelings” — evidently missing the mark in understanding just how severely mental illnesses impact will to do the simplest tasks.
On top of this — masked by the massive PR boost of this campaign — recent events surrounding Canadian prisoners and Bell employee mental health have shone a light on the hypocrisy of the company’s agenda.
In 2020, the Toronto Prisoner Rights Project (TPRP) revealed the disastrous mental health impacts of Bell Canada’s monopoly over Ontario prison phone lines in a Twitter thread, tweeting that “Bell has been destroying mental health conditions in prisons since 2013” — further speaking to the implications of Bell’s terms as the sole provider for Ontario prison’s Offender Telephone Management System (OTMS).
According to a report from the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project (CPEP), the OTMS is limited to outgoing calls which are capped at 20 minutes and to landlines — a device that only 52 per cent of Ontarians possess. CPEP claims that “at a time when the cost of a landline phone call [for the public] is nearing zero, Ontario prisoners are forced to pay astronomical rates to call their loved ones and lawyers.” In fact, a mother of an inmate had to pay a phone bill of $6,000 in three months.
This is especially problematic when considering the demographic of prison inmates in Canada. While individuals living beneath the poverty line constitute only 10 per cent of the Canadian population, almost every single prison inmate comes from beneath the poverty line.
This ultimately means that a large proportion of inmates will not be able to afford Bell’s absurdly high call rate. On top of this, over 30 per cent of Canadian inmates are Indigenous despite only making up approximately 5 per cent of the country’s population — indicating how racially targeted the community is by law enforcement. Within the total population of Indigenous communities in Canada, one in four are living under the poverty line.
Understanding this, an inmate in need to make a phone call for their mental health either pays a rate that is difficult for them to afford, or does not have the option to make a call at all. Either way, Bell — and other companies involved in the Canadian prison industrial complex — capitalize on some of the most vulnerable individuals in our country. All the while, they are benefitting from a wealth of praise for acting as trailblazers in their positive mental health campaign.
“For all Bell says about ‘talking about mental health’ and ‘ending the stigma,’ thousands of people inside prisons literally cannot talk to their friends and family when they’re experiencing a crisis or mental health issues,” TPRP says.
The trend of capitalizing on the deterioration of prisoners’ mental health is not an idea restricted to Bell Canada and Ontario Prisons. Synergy Inmate Phones — holding the contract for phone systems in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island — raise similar concerns.
Ashley Avery, a women and youth services coordinator with Coverdale Courtwork Services, told CBC News that costs exceed more than $700 a month which harms inmates and their families on a multitude of levels. Avery claims that high costs cause problematic budgeting issues for families, the aggravation of economic marginalization, and pose difficult hurdles to the process of rehabilitation and reintegration.
“We’re incarcerating people and then the phone system is adding this extra punishment,” she said.
Continuing with Bell’s hypocrisy is the disastrous state of employee mental health as a direct result of the Bell Let’s Talk campaign itself. Bell Canada employees wrote to CBC News to describe the harm the company perpetuated on their physical and mental health. This was largely due to the aggressive sales target surrounding the campaign.
A Bell Mobility Sales Manager described his experience and the outrageous pressures and working conditions, stating that he “was throwing up blood” as a result of ever-increasing sales targets and his manager calling him “at 3 in the morning to ask why [he] was off [his] sales targets.”
“It upsets me that Bell makes such a big deal about mental health awareness and takes a lot of credit for bringing that awareness to the general public,” the sales manager added.
Capitalizing on the backs of the very employees who make the mental health campaign successful is unethical and plain wrong in ways that should be apparent to everyone. If the company itself does not take mental health seriously in its own home or with vulnerable populations, it can in no way genuinely be spearheading a campaign to improve mental health nationally.
I would be remiss to understate the impact — both in a monetary and social sense — of Bell’s campaign. With over 164 million individuals interacting with their campaign and over eight million dollars raised, it is an uncontested fact that Bell has had an impact on the mental health sphere. However, it should also be an undeniable and far more well-known fact that Bell’s other actions year-round chip away at its positive impact.
It is crucial to hold these large corporations responsible for their hypocrisy and unethical behaviour. As long as these ongoing instances are ignored, Bell Canada will continue to profit in a multifaceted manner while true mental health progress will never be achieved. Mental health advocacy must be intersectional, accommodating and — above all — inclusive to all members of society.
This article is a part of our Voices section.