Detention centre closures uncaring

Dear editor,

The following is an open letter to Premier Doug Ford and Minister Todd Smith.

We agree with Ogichidaa Francis Kavanaugh and Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler that the closure of 26 youth detention centres across the province, which has resulted in the relocation of approximately 10 young people in the north, was abrupt, uncaring, traumatic, and completely at odds with the duty of the Ontario government to work collaboratively with First Nations.

We ask that Ontario take up the request of the Grand Chiefs for Treaties Three and Nine and meet with the Treaty organizations to review the closure and transfers of young people.

The Northern Youth Centre at Muriel Lake has been closed and Creighton Youth Centre on Rabbit Lake Road has lost its secure detention unit.

The relocations, including that of one young person from the Creighton Youth Centre in Kenora (operated by Creighton Youth Services) occurred with less than one-half day’s notice.

Staff at the Creighton Youth Services in Kenora and Thunder Bay were told by the Ministry of Children and Community Services not to inform the young people where they were being taken and not to notify their parents. Staff had no time to prepare the young people for their moves or relieve their anxieties. Nor were young people given a chance to say goodbye to other residents, staff, or helpers. In addition, staff were forbidden from accompanying the three young people to their new residences. Two young people were loaded on a plane and shipped to Sault Ste. Marie from Thunder Bay. Another young person was transferred to Fort Frances. All three were put in handcuffs for their journey, not knowing where they were going or why.

These young people are children, ranging in age from 12 to 17, citizens of Ontario, and members of remote, fly-in First Nations. Removing them from their culture, language, families, and communities and taking them to Kenora and Thunder Bay was hugely disruptive, but the sudden, unexplained transfer elsewhere made things worse. It disrupted their therapy, counselling, education, and established staff relationships. It has also made in-person contact with distant parents and family largely impossible. Creighton Youth Centre and the Northern Youth Centre had established high quality, innovative programming, helping them make significant progress in developing the skill-sets they need for a healthy return to their northern communities.

When challengedabout how the move was carried out, the Ministry stated that it was done in this way to ensure that the youth’s programming would not be further impacted. Ministry staff showed no understanding of the historic trauma and loss of the residential school experience and no understanding of the essential role that safety and relationships play in fostering good mental health.

These transfers not only show disrespect for the young people, their parents, and their home communities; they also fly in the face of efforts being made by Ontario to address the over-representation of Indigenous people in custody. The young people remain in custody—only they are now even further from their homes.

Ontario, to its credit, has demonstrated a willingness to work with First Nations on justice issues: a Bed, Bail and Transition Home in Pikangikum to provide housing and healing services for those on bail or in intermittent sentences; a justice hub in Kenora, now in the planning stages; and support for a Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Clinic established in the region several years ago. We must ask why that willingness to work with First Nations now appears to have been abandoned.

We urge the Province to meet with First Nations leadership to address the following questions: how was the decision made to close the centres, and what reasons were given? why were First Nations, parents, young people, and staff given no notice whatsoever of the closures? and why were staff not given adequate time to prepare young people for the transfer, or the opportunity to accompany them?

Finally, we note that the closures have led to the loss of at least 20 jobs in Kenora and have ignored options of turning closed centres into healing lodges with treatment programs for needy youngsters and adults, both promising alternatives to the planned expansions of the Kenora Jail and the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre.

The Honourable Erwin W. Stach
Rupert Ross LL.B
Peter Kirby LL.B.
Jack Martin