Indigenous leaders horrified by closure of detention facilities, treatment of youth
Closures of William W. Creighton Youth Services facilities among 26 closures across the province
The Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation says he's horrified by the province's decision to shut down youth detention facilities in northern Ontario, including three in northwestern Ontario, and by the way in which the government is alleged to have handled the closures.
Alvin Fiddler and Grand Council Treaty #3 Ogichidaa Francis Kavanaugh signed a letter to the premier on Wednesday outlining their concerns.
The province notified William W. Creighton Youth Services on Monday that the Creighton Youth Centre in Kenora, the J.J. Kelso Centre in Thunder Bay, and the Jack McGuire Centre in Thunder Bay were among 26 youth detention facilities that would lose funding effective April 30, according to Ben Stride-Darnley, the president of Creighton's board of directors.
"By one o'clock the same day, which is actually only 12 o'clock in Kenora, any youth in our care in these closing facilities would have to be ready to be transferred. So we were given three hours," Stride-Darnley said.
Two youth from Thunder Bay and one from Kenora were transferred out of the communities, according to Creighton executive director Keith Zehr.
Youth transferred within northern Ontario
Government officials told the organization not to tell youth that they were moving or where they were moving to, Stride-Darnley added. They also denied Creighton's request to send its own workers with the youth for support.
"We all thought, you know, the days of seeing our kids forcibly removed and shackled and sent away to faraway places away from their families and loved ones, and their communities and their homes were behind us," NAN Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said. "But obviously, that's not the case."
Asked to respond to the concerns raised by Fiddler, Kavanaugh and Stride-Darnley, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services said in an email that youth were relocated the day of notification "to ensure their programming was not further impacted."
"Youth from northern communities were transferred to the remaining facilities in the northern region. Youth and families were notified of these transfers by their ministry probation officer," the spokesperson said.
The youth transferred from Thunder Bay were sent to Sault Ste-Marie, Stride-Darnley said.
It is now the closest secure detention facility for girls and young women to the northwest.
The government continues to fund and/or operate other youth detention facilities in the region, the ministry spokesperson noted. But the Justice Ronald Lester Youth Centre in Thunder Bay, the Ge-Da-Gi Binez Youth Centre in Fort Frances and the Kairos Youth Residence in Thunder Bay all serve male youth only.
Being farther from their families will have a devastating impact on children in detention, Fiddler said.
Detention facilities underutilized
"That they were here, a bit closer to their families and their home communities, was good in the sense that families had an opportunity to interact with them, to be part of their healing journey," he said. "But now they're being shipped off further away... so there'll be zero interaction between families and their children."
The ministry closed facilities across the province because the number of youth admitted to custody has dropped by 81 per cent since 2004-2005, thanks to prevention and education programs, the ministry said.
Youth justice facilities across the province have been significantly underused, according to the Ministry statement.
The Kelso Centre operated at 12 per cent capacity in 2019-2020 and the secure facility at the Creighton Centre operated at 17 per cent capacity, the ministry told CBC. "This significant underutilization shows the success of efforts to keep families together and return youth to the right track where they are positive members of our communities."
Stride-Darnley conceded that underutilization is an issue but said that Creighton had sought to address those concerns with the ministry by preparing a proposal to convert a facility to a secure mental health treatment centre – but that proposal was turned down.
As it stands, he said, the 11 secure beds for young girls aged 12-18 at the Kelso Centre and the five or six secure beds – depending on configuration – for boys aged 12-17 at the Creighton Centre will close, he said. The open custody services for boys at the Jack McGuire Centre in Thunder Bay will also close, while the open custody services in Kenora will switch from being co-ed to boys-only and will have reduced capacity.
Close to 50 people will lose their jobs as a result, Stride-Darnley said.