Government officials’ overreliance on secrecy in planning the abrupt closure of two youth custody and detention programs in Northern Ontario last year came at a price, Ombudsman Paul Dubé says in his latest report, released today.
The secure custody and detention programs at the Creighton Youth Centre in Kenora and J.J. Kelso Youth Centre in Thunder Bay were among 25 programs simultaneously shut down on March 1, 2021 in an operation that the Ombudsman found was “shrouded in secrecy.”
The two programs housed four youths at the time, all Indigenous. The Ombudsman launched an investigation after receiving a complaint that expressed numerous concerns about the treatment of these young people, some of whom were transported in handcuffs and shackles and moved far from their communities with only a few hours’ notice.
The Ombudsman’s report, Lost Opportunities, concludes that the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services “deliberately avoided transparency” in planning and implementing the closures, which came as a surprise even to managers and staff at the affected centres, as well as the surrounding communities, Indigenous groups and justice officials. Deeming the Ministry’s conduct “unreasonable and wrong” under the Ombudsman Act, Mr. Dubé makes 16 recommendations in the report to improve the planning and implementation of such closures in future, all of which the Ministry has accepted.
“As a result of its failure to more fully consult its own staff, youth centre staff, and external resources, the Ministry lost opportunities to incorporate valuable knowledge into its planning,” the Ombudsman says in the report. “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.”
In at least two instances, the Ministry failed to adequately consider the individual best interests of the youth within its care, the Ombudsman found. It transferred one youth to a new centre despite the known “serious conflict risk” this posed to a youth already living there, who in turn had to be transferred elsewhere. The placement preference of another youth undergoing gender transition was not given adequate consideration, contrary to the Ministry’s own policy.
The Ministry also failed to recognize that its standard method of transporting young people between secure facilities – using handcuffs and leg irons – would come as a “culture shock” to staff and youths from centres that did not use or even possess leg irons, the Ombudsman found. Indeed, this treatment of Indigenous youth, captured in news reports, was viewed by some as “reminiscent of the Sixties Scoop, residential schools and cultural genocide,” he notes.
Although the Ministry sought some advice from the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs in its planning process, it did not plan to inform affected Indigenous groups of the closures until the day they occurred – only to discover that many band offices were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Voicemails and emails were sent and not followed up on, and there was no backup plan for reaching the affected groups. “Several Ministry officials acknowledged to us that this aspect of the implementation was unsuccessful,” Mr. Dubé writes.
“In my independent oversight role, I am uniquely placed to encourage public sector bodies to reflect learning from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in their operations,” he says in the report, stressing that the Ministry “should consider more effective ways to incorporate reconciliation principles into its planning.”
The Ombudsman’s recommendations are aimed at making the planning and implementation of youth custody and detention program closures more informed, transparent and youth-centred, particularly where they affect Indigenous youth and their communities. The Ministry has committed to report back to the Ombudsman every six months on its progress in implementing them.
The investigation was conducted by a team of Ombudsman staff experienced in dealing with youth justice issues, including members of the office’s dedicated Children and Youth Unit, established in 2019. It included more than 90 interviews with the affected youths, their families and guardians, Ministry officials, staff from the affected centres, and law enforcement officials.
The Ombudsman is an independent, impartial officer of the Ontario Legislature who resolves and investigates public complaints about provincial government bodies, as well as French language services, child protection services, municipalities, universities and school boards. He does not overturn decisions of elected officials or set public policy, but makes recommendations to ensure administrative fairness, transparency and accountability. The Ombudsman’s recommendations have been overwhelmingly accepted by government.
Source: Office of the Ombudsman in Ontario, Canada