By Karen Edwards
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
THUNDER BAY — The provincial government’s decision to close two youth detention facilities in northwestern Ontario has been described as “horrific” by the Grand Chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation.
Earlier this week, a spokesperson with the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services announced Jack McGuire Centre and JJ Kelso Centre would no longer be operational by April 30.
Several youth facilities across the province including in the northwest have been significantly underused due to a reduction of youth being admitted into custody since 2004, the ministry said.
Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said the decision to close the facilities and transfer the youth elsewhere will have a major impact on not only the youth but their families as well.
Youth currently residing at these facilities were transferred to the remaining facilities in the northern region, the ministry said.
“It means no service at all for our young people and families that need these types of supports,” Fiddler said in an interview on Wednesday, March 3.
“It means that they will be even more displaced, they will be even more far away from their families and communities,” he said, adding having facilities in both Kenora and Thunder Bay gave families at least some opportunity to interact with their kids.
The decision to close the facilities comes from recommendations made by the auditor general, the ministry said in an emailed statement to Tbnewswatch this week.
Fiddler said the decision was sudden and abrupt.
“I think everyone from my understanding was blindsided by this,” he said. “They were given one hour notice and [the youth were] shackled along with a few of their belongings and then taken to a plane and flown to a southern location. It’s just horrific.”
Most of the youth have either been transferred to Sault Ste. Marie or to facilities in southern Ontario such as Ottawa and Toronto, Fiddler said.
There was also no communication to the families of the youth in custody of the transfers.
“I don’t know how anyone can treat a person like that to send them far away without informing families, without properly creating a transition plan to ensure support for young people and letting them know that this is happening,” Fiddler said. “It was very sudden and I can’t imagine the trauma.”
A letter was sent to the Ford government on behalf of NAN Grand Council Treaty #3 expressing their concern on the closures.
“They were given such a short notice that they didn’t have time to say their goodbyes,” he said.
Fiddler said it will be almost impossible for families to travel to see their children, most of whom are from remote fly-in communities.
Dr. Ben Stride-Darnley, president of the board of volunteer directors for the William W. Creighton Youth Centre, said they are appalled and shocked at the province’s decision to close their facilities.
“There was no involvement from us, no chance to negotiate, no chance to collaborate and no chance to ensure that resources are maintained locally,” Stride-Darnley said on March 3 in an interview.
The president says the board has been aware of the relatively low numbers of youth in custody and had come together with community partners to put together a proposal to convert some or all of their spaces into secure treatment.
“With redirection away from incarceration it then becomes inevitable that we have low numbers,” he said. “Having said that keeping youth closer to their own communities is key to transition and key to recuperation and rehabilitation.”
He adds that youth in custody in the northwest are some of the most vulnerable in Ontario.
“We would take youth from anywhere north of Wawa to Hudson Bay to the Manitoba border,” he said. “Sending them further afield makes visitation very difficult, even within our own catchment it is difficult because of distances to Kenora and Thunder Bay.”
Youth in custody at these facilities were informed on Monday morning they would be transported to other facilities later that same afternoon, Stride-Darnley said.
“At the same time were informed, we were not allowed to tell them where they were going, we were not allowed to tell their parents or their guardian that they were moving despite requests by both myself and the executive director to the ministry,” he said.
Stride-Darnley explained how William W. Creighton Youth Services is known for how they build relationships for youth who are incarcerated.
“We work with them to build up their well-being, their self-esteem, their mental health issues, address other health issues and make sure they are attending and achieving in school and trying to build them up so they don’t become a part of a cycle of youth criminal justice or adult justice issues,” Stride-Darnley said.
“So there were tears by the youths having to be shackled and having to be transferred and not knowing where they were going and that to me is a detrimental experience and I would also argue is a racist experience. It is very similar to the Sixties Scoop and residential schools in that at nowhere at no point where their needs or concerns really addressed by the ministry,” he said.
Indigenous youth account for 90 per cent of youth in incarceration systems across Ontario, according to Stride-Darnley.
“It is integral to the well-being of youth especially in the justice system that they are close as possible to their home communities and being a 1,000 to 1,500 kilometres away is not conducive to rehabilitation,” he said. “None of the money being saved is being relocated to the northwest it is all going to the central coffer and there has been no redirection to other community programming at this point. That is a cost-saving, not a human-based decision which is unfortunate.”
The ministry says the closure of youth facilities across the province will allow the government to re-invest nearly $40 million into other programs.
“We need to look at the long term and how we can support these children into adulthood and how we need to look at the longer-term solutions rather than just shutting down facilities like we are seeing this week,” Fiddler said.
He hopes the provincial government will be open to having discussions on how to support youth in custody and their families going forward.
There will be 50 jobs losses in both Kenora and Thunder Bay as a result of the facilities closing.