Kenora will be the future home of a brand new kind of justice.
Kenora-Rainy River MPP Greg Rickford was joined by Ontario attorney general Doug Downey in Kenora on Thursday, where they announced a Kenora Justice Centre that is meant to address the over-representation of Indigenous people in the local criminal justice system.
Both Rickford and Downey were in Fort Frances the following day, where they had the opportunity to explain more about the justice centre and the impact it will have on Fort Frances and the district.
Rickford explained that the centre was part of an initiative which will see three other similar, but overall unique, efforts in other parts of the province.
“It was bundled originally with a Community Justice Centre in Toronto and London,” he said.
“London was focused on youth, Toronto was focused on gun, gangs and violence and enforcement. Kenora’s is much more unique.
“It is not designed to bring relief to offenders necessarily, but it is designed to take a look at indigenous offenders who enter the system and may either face or be incarcerated for reasons that, in other regions than that they may not.”
Downey said that the justice centre will work by taking combining the various social services required by the community with the functions of a courtroom.
“Conceptually, if you could take the social services and put them into a courthouse and address the underlying issues that people are experiencing,” he said.
“Of course, we don’t have the physical space for that, so we’re effectively doing the opposite. We’re identifying the social services that we need and then we’re putting a courtroom there.”
Treaty 3 Grand Chief Francis Kavanaugh had been working with the previous provincial Liberal government in trying to get a project like the justice centre off the ground, but Rickford said the efforts had been stuck in the concept phase, something his government was quick to improve upon.
“Over the past 15 months we’ve brought it into something that can be put into practice as early as January to provide relief within the system for indigenous offenders,” he explained.
“And as well bring some other pieces into it that the previous government had not thought about that we believed you needed in place.”
Rickford said that some of those pieces include “a 30-unit mental health addiction facility in Kenora that will serve the entire Kenora-Rainy River District, an after bail CARE program, a physical space and program support in Kenora for the entire region to benefit from and then of course the Community Justice Centre, which is going to be working in lockstep with all of the bars in the Kenora-Rainy River District as well as the judges and crowns to provide some relief and some alternative, when and where appropriate, for indigenous offenders.”
Downey went on to say that eventually they hope to have a physical building for the justice centre, though that won’t be possible as the process gets underway.
“The minister is very eager to have a physical, bricks and mortar space,” he explained.
“Because we want to get going now, the advisory committee starts in October and it has both representation from Treaty Three, and of course NAN [Nishnawbe Aski Nation] which we’re thrilled about having the support across the border from stakeholders, as that moves forward it’ll give us a better idea of what a bricks and mortar should be, rather than working in reverse.”
Rickford provided an example of how the justice centre would work, and said that in the event of something like a breach of probation, where an individual might not be required to go to jail, they could then be sent to their community with conditions and programmed support, which is different from what the likely outcome is currently.
“What ends up happening all too often, and we saw this this summer in Kenora, is they’ll go and do an extended stay in the Kenora jail, and then they’ll simply be released and wind up in the streets of Kenora,” Rickford said.
“We think that there’s alternatives. Judges have told us that, Crown attorneys, public defenders have told us that, and the police, as importantly, have told us that. That would be one example of how we could do that.”
Rickford also said there could be alternatives at the front end of the system as well, which would negate the need for certain individuals to leave their communities for the court system in the first place, instead receiving services under certain conditions in their community.
Rickford and Downey announced that an advisory committee will be put together to help guide the formation of the justice centre and the kind of services it will need to provide to best benefit the communities it will serve.
“We are looking at it being populated with people from the Kenora-Rainy River District,” Rickford said.
“Its complexion will understand this, just because a lot of the process stuff is coming out of Kenora, it will impact decision-making alternative and restorative justice pieces in courtrooms and communities throughout the region. It’s homemade product.”
The advisory committee is expected to form following the election of the next Grand Chief for Treaty 3.
The final piece of the puzzle was deciding where the best location for this justice centre would be, and Rickford noted that through co-operation between Treaty 3 and NAN, Kenora was decided as the best location.
“There was some prior, with the previous government, some controversy around whether it would be in Thunder Bay,” Rickford said.
“And in fairness to the Nishnawbe Aski Nation who, Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler gave some prepared remarks for me to say yesterday, recognize that Kenora was a unique place for this to go, that Treaty Three and NAN shared a city where all of this sort of challenges arise and that the solution would be best suited.”
“We know that Kenora’s justice system, many of the services and support programs that are there, serve a lot of Northwestern NAN communities that are isolated,” Rickford continued.
“And of course a large catchment of Treaty 3, and that’s what this is designed for. Treaty 3 is in the Fort Frances-Rainy River-Kenora District more squarely than it is to Thunder Bay, so it’s an appropriate place for it and it’s here.”