Thursday, September 18, 2014
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Native leaders criticize Victoria youth custody centre closing

By Louise Dickson and Lindsay Kines, Times Colonist

B.C. aboriginal leaders say they should have been consulted before the provincial government decided to shut down the Victoria Youth Custody Centre and ship First Nations youths out of their communities.

“It’s absolutely outrageous to think that the province would allow this to happen, that they would be a party to this,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs. “It’s blatant hypocrisy, particularly when this government has attempted to promote itself as families-first. Shame on Premier Christy Clark and her government.”

On April 28, Minister of Children and Family Development Stephanie Cadieux announced that the government can no longer afford to keep the youth jail open to house an average of 15 boys a night.

Offenders will be held at the two remaining youth-custody centres in Burnaby and Prince George. Some Victoria youth will have to spend time in police cells on pre-court detention, remand and short sentences.

Although aboriginal youth are dramatically overrepresented in the youth criminal justice system, the government failed to consult with First Nations, Phillip said.

“It’s absolutely unconscionable that the government would contemplate doing this,” he said.

Grand Chief Doug Kelly, who chairs the First Nations Health Council, voiced concern that the jail’s closure will limit contact between aboriginal youth and their families.

“That's something that’s really important to maintain,” he said. "While they may have done something that requires them to be in detention, we should, at all times, try to keep them connected to their family, connected to their community.

“That's a bit troubling that we would close a detention centre and contemplate putting them in Burnaby or Prince George. Their families are not going to be able to afford travel as often to maintain contact with their youth.”

Kelly also echoed the concerns of Representative for Children and Youth Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond and the provincial health officer, who warn that young offenders from the Island may be housed in Burnaby with more hardened young offenders, including gang members.

“That is a very serious threat to that individual and their ability to learn from their mistakes, maintain the support of their family and get themselves moving in the right direction,” Kelly said.

Hugh Braker, chief councillor of the Tseshaht First Nation in Port Alberni, said the decision to close the youth detention centre is short-sighted.

“In the long run, I think it’s going to cost the government far more than they are ever going to save by closing the Victoria institution,” Braker said.

“The best thing to do with kids who get into trouble is to try and rehabilitate them, rather than punish them and not rehabilitate them, because then they are looking at a lifetime of dysfunction.”

More than 70 per cent of aboriginal youth who get into trouble with the law suffer from mental health issues such as fetal alcohol syndrome, Braker said. They deserve to be assessed and placed in proper treatment, not shuffled around the province to various institutions, he said.

“Warehousing youths in large centralized institutions works against all the principles we know that are necessary to rehabilitate them,” he said.

“Isolating them from families … [and] taking away their culture is the exact opposite of what you’re supposed to be doing. Eventually you’re just going to be left with nothing that’s successful in curbing their future activities. I am concerned that our ability to assist kids in the future is going to be limited,” Braker said.

The police cells in Port Alberni are so awful, adults should not be kept there, let alone youths, Braker said.

Port Alberni youths in custody in Victoria are driven to their court appearances first thing in the morning. They arrive for court, then head back, Braker said.

“They won’t be able to do that anymore,” he predicted.

A youth coming from Vancouver will now spend three days in local police cells in Port Alberni.

“There’s no opportunity for counsellors or other things to keep the kids busy. They’ll be locked up in a four-wall cell and left there because local police don’t have the facilities available to deal with these kids.”

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