Indigenous leaders are condemning what they describe as the sudden closure of several youth justice centres in northern Ontario, saying children and staff were traumatized after they were transferred to more distant facilities without proper notice.
In an open letter to Premier Doug Ford issued last week, the Grand Chiefs of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation and Grand Council Treaty #3 expressed their “collective horror” at the closures, which they said particularly affect youth from northern First Nations.
Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler and Ogichidaa Francis Kavanaugh said there will no longer be any such facilities – where youth between the ages of 12 and 17 are held as they await trial or serve their sentence for various offences – within hundreds of kilometres of northern First Nations.
“We can confirm that the youth, as well as the staff, are reeling with confusion and trauma from the shock of such a sudden and unexpected change in the course of their lives. We need not remind you, Premier, these are children who were already fragile,” they wrote in the letter.
The two leaders criticized what they deemed to be the “careless manner” in which the facilities were shut down, adding they were told one centre received roughly an hour’s notice before children were moved.
“Staff have described deep anguish at watching these children being removed in shackles and placed on planes, without time to say goodbye. This is a heartbreaking and incredibly callous way to treat children, their families, and the staff at these centres,” the letter reads.
Ontario’s Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services said it recently shut down 26 youth justice centres, including 10 in northern Ontario, because a dramatic drop in admissions over more than 15 years had left the facilities “significantly underused.”
A spokeswoman for the ministry said there has been an 81 per cent reduction in the number of youth admitted since 2004-2005, and five facilities had no youth at all for the majority of 2019-2020.
Twenty-seven youth facilities remain in operation, including eight in northern Ontario, Genevieve Oger said in a statement.
While the decision to close any facility is “a difficult one,” the changes align with recommendations made in the past by the province’s auditor general, she said.
The auditor recommended in 2012 that the province take steps to ensure spending on youth detention facilities was proportionate to the need for those services, and consider reducing beds in significantly underused facilities.
Fewer than 25 youth were relocated in Ontario, and fewer than 10 in northern Ontario, Oger said.
“Youth were relocated the same day as notification (of the closure) to ensure their programming was not further impacted,” she wrote.
“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 ministry said the closures will allow the province to reinvest $39.9 million each year into other programs, but gave no details as to where the funding would be reallocated.
Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press