One year after the abrupt closure of two youth centres in Kenora, Ontario’s Ombudsman says the government’s decision was found to be ‘shrouded in secrecy, unreasonable and wrong,’ as they left up to 10 youth, their families and their communities ‘in the dark’.

Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé has completed its report on the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services’ decision to close youth detention programs in Kenora in April of 2021, saying the government’s over-reliance on ‘secrecy’ came at a price for Indigenous youth and local staff.

In March of 2021, Ontario announced it had planned to close the secure detention unit within Kenora’s Creighton Youth Centre on Rabbit Lake Road and cease operations altogether at Keewatin’s Northern Youth Centre near Muriel Lake by the end of April 2021.

This came as the province moved to shut down 26 youth detention centres in Ontario – saving about $40 million annually. Closures had been recommended by the Auditor General in 2012 and 2014 due to under-utilization and an 81 per cent reduction in admissions to youth detention centres.

But the move caused a reported ten youth within the two Kenora centres to move to one of the other 27 youth detention facilities across the province, including one in Fort Frances and one in Sault St. Marie – about 14 hours away from the area. The ten youth were all between the ages of 12 and 17.

Grand Council Treaty #3 Ogichidaa Francis Kavanaugh and the then-current Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation Alvin Fiddler both raised their concerns with the move in an open letter, noting youth were ‘reeling with confusion and trauma’ after they were only given about an hour’s notice before the move.

Their letter notes staff had requested to travel alongside the youth, but their requests were denied. As well, they allege staff were told to not warn the youth about where they were moving to, and communication to the youth’s families would only be handled by provincial staff.

“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,” said NAN’s statement in 2021.

Later, the former director of the Creighton Youth Services facility, Jack Martin, penned a second open letter to provincial leadership, with input from retired Ontario Superior Court Justice Erwin Stach, retired crown attorney, author and speaker Rupert Ross and retired defence lawyer Peter Kirby. The four all called for an immediate review of the situation.

“These transfers not only show disrespect for the young people, their parents and their home communities; they also fly in the face of efforts being made by Ontario to address the over-representation of Indigenous people in custody. The young people remain in custody-only they are now even further from their homes,” said their open letter in 2021.

Now, one year later and without any significant progress on the future of the two facilities, Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé has wrapped up his report on the situation in Kenora as well as a similar situation which played out in Thunder Bay, titled Lost Opportunities.

Dubé says the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services ‘deliberately’ avoided transparency in planning the closures, which came as a surprise to managers and staff, surrounding communities, Indigenous groups, justice officials and members of the media.

“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.”

Dubé then describes a variety of issues that took place following the transfer.

In at least two separate instances, Dubé describes a situation where one of the youths being transferred to a new facility despite a ‘serious conflict risk’ posed to another youth already living there, who in turn, was then transferred elsewhere.

In another instance, Dubé says the placement preference of a youth undergoing gender transition was not given adequate consideration. As well, the youth’s home communities were not told of the transfer until the day it occurred.

Dubé also spoke at length about the ‘culture shock’ that staff and children went through as they were transported using handcuffs and leg irons, which was viewed by some as ‘reminiscent of the Sixties Scoop, residential schools and cultural genocide.’

Dubé notes the Ministry did seek advice from the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs, led by the Kenora-Rainy River MPP Greg Rickford, in the planning process. He says the ministry planned to reach out to communities, but when they couldn’t reach band offices due to COVID-19 closures, there was no backup plan.

“Several Ministry officials acknowledged to us that this aspect of the implementation was unsuccessful,” says Dubé, who has since made 16 recommendations to the ministry to improve their planning and implementation of any future closures.

In an interview with Q104 and KenoraOnline in 2021, Minister Rickford said meetings with NAN and Grand Council Treaty #3 would continue to determine a future use for the two vacant facilities, citing a possible human trafficking recovery centre or a healing lodge. To date, both properties remain empty.

The closure of the two facilities also led to the loss of 20 jobs in Kenora, but the non-secure unit of the Creighton Youth Centre remains in operation. The facility allows youth to live safely until the disposition of their case in courts, with a variety of supports.

The Ontario Ombudsman is an independent, impartial officer of the Ontario Legislature who resolves and investigates public complaints about provincial government bodies, as well as service providers, municipalities, universities and school boards.