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Canadian ex-inmate strives to end stigma through popcorn business

(This March 2 story has been corrected to rectify the name of the company to ComeBack Snacks instead of ComeBacks Snacks in paragraph 6)

By Kyaw Soe Oo

TORONTO (Reuters) - After Emily O'Brien was released from an Ontario prison in 2018, where she spent four years for a conviction related to drug trade, she decided to start a company to help people with criminal records find regular work.

The idea came while O'Brien, 35, was serving the prison term and inmates told her about the struggles of finding a job due to the stigma attached to prison, as a majority of employers avoid former prisoners.

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O'Brien was determined to give an estimated 3.8 million Canadians with criminal background a second chance. She toyed with the idea of starting a business that would hire former prisoners.

"We didn't have the confidence. We didn't really believe in ourselves," O'Brien told Reuters at her warehouse in Vaughan, a city more than 40 kilometres (24.85 miles) north of Toronto.

"But what people don't see is that everyone in prison is a human and everyone that has been to prison needs help. They need someone to believe," she added.

While in prison, O'Brien considered starting several ventures, but settled for a popcorn business as it was a popular snack in prison and named it ComeBack Snacks Popcorn.

Using prison recipes, O'Brien aptly used the tagline "Popcorn So Good, It's Criminal," and she launched the company in 2020 and now employs five former inmates and sells popcorns through 650 outlets in Canada and the United States.

"We are still a small, lean team, but ... we are a great big happy family," she added.

Official data show that about one million former inmates live in Ontario, the country's most populous province.

While employers are required to make background checks, there is no law that prevents inmates being hired into regular workforce.

Yet, Safiyah Husein a senior policy analyst at John Howard Society of Ontario, who co-authored a report on job opportunities for people with a criminal history, found something shocking. She surveyed about 400 hiring managers across Canada and 73% said they never hired anyone with a criminal record and 42% said they would automatically discard applicants with criminal records.

Darren Perlman, co-founder and CEO of employment services firm Spotwork, said if people with criminal history can find jobs, it would eliminate Canada's labour shortage. Canada's unemployment rate stood at 5.7% in January.

O'Brien wants to see change not just in Canada, but across the world.

"I encourage all employers out there to give people a chance and it will help strengthen your workforce, help strengthen the individual and help strengthen society," she added.

($1 = 1.3497 Canadian dollars)

(Reporting by Kyaw Soe Oo; Writing by Denny Thomas; Editing by Josie Kao)