Yukon NDP calls for public inquiry into 'profoundly disturbing' Michael Nehass case

Yukon inmate Michael Nehass was held at Whitehorse Correctional for years, often delusional and refusing medication. Advocates say the case is an example of Canada's justice system failing a person with mental illness.

Yukon man spent years in jail before getting the mental health care he needed

Nehass was convicted in 2015 of assaulting a woman in Watson Lake. He has since been convicted of assault, arson and vandalism at the Whitehorse Correctional Facility. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

The Yukon NDP is calling for a public inquiry into the case of a mentally-ill Indigenous man who spent years in jail before getting the mental health treatment he needs. 

Yukon NDP leader Liz Hanson says a independent public inquiry should be called into Nehass' incarceration and the use of segregation at Whitehorse Correctional. (CBC)
Michael Nehass, 33, entered the Whitehorse Correctional Centre in 2011, beginning a complex legal odyssey that persisted until he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and moved to a mental health facility in Ontario.

While in jail, he accumulated charges related to violence and vandalism, and was placed in a segregation unit that experts said made his mental health worse. He was often delusional, but the jail could not legally force him to take medication he refused. 

The Yukon Supreme Court will reconvene on Tuesday to discuss Nehass's release and whether he will return to Whitehorse.

'It's a profoundly disturbing situation, but we need to know that it cannot be repeated,' said Yukon NDP leader Liz Hanson.

An RCMP mug shot shows Michael Nehass from 2008, when police were looking for help to locate and arrest him on a warrant for breaking a court order. (RCMP)
"I feel strongly that it's up to the government of Yukon to have an open, independent inquiry," she said. 

"We've been calling on the government and this past government for years to do a full public inquiry into the circumstances that have lead to Mr. Nehass being incarcerated for such a long time. And for such a long time in solitary confinement," she added.

"There are consequences to this kind of treatment both for the inmate and those charged in their care. It's traumatic."

Since being sent to an Ontario mental health hospital, the Yukon Supreme Court has heard that Nehass is taking medication and showing improvement.

Time for an overhaul

Ann Maje Raider, executive director of the Liard Aboriginal Womens' Society, was in the courtroom Friday when Nehass's charges were stayed. She has followed the case closely and says Nehass should have been transferred to hospital years ago.

"This case has shown the world the real need to overhaul our justice system and mental health systems as it pertains to Indigenous people," she said.

Maje Raider remembered one incident in 2014 when Nehass refused to get dressed in his cell. Corrections officers dragged him naked to appear via video for a court hearing. (A judge later apologized.)

"I was horrified when I heard that Michael was pulled out of his cell naked. Handcuffed. How would you feel? Just because he has a mental health issue and he's Indigenous then it's OK?"

Nehass' case included some back-and-forth court decisions about his mental health.

The Yukon territorial court first declared Nehass unfit for trial. However this was overturned by the Yukon Review Board. A subsequent trial — marked by interruptions and claims about mind control — was declared a mistrial due to Nehass' mental illness.  

Michael Nehass had shown signs of mental illness, interrupting proceedings and filing documents about mind control brain implants. Nevertheless the Yukon Review Board found him fit to represent himself in court. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Elder advisor feels ignored

Roger Ellis is another advocate for change. He sits on the six-person elders' committee at Whitehorse Correctional.

Like Maje Raider, he believe Nehass is a victim of systemic racism against Indigenous people.

Inmates are often 'treated like animals and caged up' says Roger Ellis, one of several people who say the Michael Nehass case shows the justice system needs to better understand mental illness. (Philippe Morin/CBC)
"You guys need to treat them like a human," he said. "Not an animal and cage them up. They need counselling so they can learn."

Ellis said the elders advisory board has raised concerns in the past relating to inmates at Whitehorse Correctional but says he hasn't seen progress. He questions whether the board is useful at all.

"We've made recommendations to Corrections but that's all we have — it's just a recommendation. We don't see any changes to the system.

"Why are we there? We're not making headway here. Are we put there just make it look good? It's a slap to the elders."

Nehass's defence lawyer Anik Morrow has compared Nehass' treatment to that of Adam Capay, an Indigenous Ontario man who spent more than four years in solitary confinement awaiting trial.