THUNDER BAY - The sudden closure of two youth custody and detention programs in Northern Ontario by the province last spring was significantly flawed says the Ontario Ombudsman, due to a lack of transparency and overt secrecy, leaving staff, youth, and First Nation communities with a limited understanding of the impacts.
On Tuesday, Ontario Ombudsman, Paul Dubé, released his report: Lost Opportunities, examining the closure of the Creighton Youth Centre in Kenora and J.J. Kelso Youth Centre in Thunder Bay, which were among 25 programs across the province simultaneously shut down on March 1, 2021.
The facilities were used to house young people who are awaiting trial or have already been convicted of offences. One youth was housed in Kenora and three in Thunder Bay.
First Nation leaders, including Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler and Grand Chief Ogichidaa Francis Kavanaugh of Grand Council Treaty #3 wrote an open letter to Premier Doug Ford criticizing the closure, saying vulnerable Indigenous youth were being transported further away from their communities.
Following the closure of the facilities in Kenora and Thunder Bay, Dubé’s office received a complaint regarding how the Ministry of Children, Community, and Social Services notified the centres about the closure and the transfer of the four Indigenous youth who had been living in the facilities.
“My investigation focused on how the Ministry carried out the closures, rather than the government’s policy decision to reduce the number of youth custody and detention programs across the province,” Dubé wrote in his report. “We received four additional complaints about the closures after my investigation began.”
According to Dubé’s report, the Ministry’s planning and implementation of the closures was ‘shrouded in secrecy.’
“Based on its past experience with similar exercises, the Ministry was worried about labour relations and security risks, as well as the treatment and privacy of the young people involved, if news of the closures leaked prematurely,” Dubé wrote. “Unfortunately, the Ministry’s blinkered approach left it without valuable insight into the unique nature of these centres and the Indigenous youth they served.”
Dubé added the Ministry had limited understanding or appreciation for how these actions would be perceived by First Nation communities, including the method of transporting youth in handcuffs and leg shackles.
“We suggest more could have been done to prepare them for that,” Dubé said in an interview. “It is a typical operating procedure for transferring people in detention. But at the very least they could have been given a heads up and explained to them that it’s not about you or about punishment.”
He added that the Ministry did not realize how shocking such procedures might be to staff and Indigenous youth living in a facility that did not even possess leg irons.
“Some observed that transporting young people in this manner without notice was insensitive to Indigenous youth and communities, given the government’s historical legacy of forcibly removing Indigenous children from their families,” he wrote in his report.
There was also a lack of communication with First Nation communities on the day the closures and transfers took place, with the Ministry’s planning to call band offices but not realizing many were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Ministry also failed to consult with the four youth transferred out of the two facilities and while Dubé said it ‘factored in their best interests at all stages of planning,’ he found two instances where the Ministry failed to “adequately consider the individual best interests of youth within its care during the planning process.”
“Whenever dealing with young people or youth, they have to be heard and they have a right to be heard,” Dubé said. “That is important in any process involving their living arrangements or transportation. And young people living in custody and detention are extremely vulnerable and they deserve maximum support and need a voice.”
One youth was transferred to centre where there was a serious conflict with another youth already there. Dubé said the Ministry did not consider the risk associated with the transfer and the youth already living at the facility had to be transferred out due to an increased risk.
Another youth in the process of gender transition was not given proper consideration, Dubé found, saying potential placements were only conducted based on the youth’s gender assigned at birth.
“The Ministry’s strategy of restricted consultation and no engagement with local communities or affected Indigenous groups left it with limited understanding of the impacts of the closures while it planned for their implementation,” Dubé wrote.
“I have determined that there were several deficiencies in the Ministry’s planning and implementation of the closures and transfers on March 1, 2021. Accordingly, I have concluded that the Ministry’s conduct was unreasonable and wrong, under the Ombudsman Act.”
Ministry handed 16 recommendations
As part of his report, Dubé handed down 16 recommendations to the Ministry of Children, Community, and Social Services to create a more balanced, informed, and transparent process for the closure of youth detention and custody facilities and the transfer of youth.
“At the heart of all 16 of our recommendations is to encourage public bodies to reflect on learning from Truth and Reconciliation Commission in operations like this,” he said. “At the heart of reconciliation is consultation.”
The recommendations include the Ministry ensuring any conflicts identified between youth be carefully reviewed before arriving at placement decisions, that facilities be briefed on any conflicts, youth identifying as transgender be consulted prior to placement decisions, that the Ministry consult with Indigenous groups and communities on transfer practices, and develop plans for improving relations with Indigenous communities.
The Ministry of Children, Community, and Social Services has accepted all the recommendations and Dubé is further recommending it report back to his office in six-month intervals on the progress of implementing all recommendations.
“Officials have committed to improving their methods in this kind of exercise,” Dubé said. “So if there is a next time, I would expect much more consultation and engagement from the Ministry with the youth involved and the staff and definitely with the Indigenous groups and communities and more involvement from the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs.”