Anik Morrow, Michael Nehass’ lawyer, says her client needs proper mental healthcare. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News)

Michael Nehass bound for psychiatric hospital in B.C.

‘It’s proper mental health care for Mr. Nehass that’s needed, not the criminalization of mental illness’

Ten minutes and and three pages.

A ten-minute discussion in a Whitehorse courtroom Sept. 12 and the resulting three-page transport order were what finally cut Michael Nehass free from a nearly six-year-long tangle with the Yukon justice system, one that raised alarms about the treatment of First Nations inmates, inmates with mental health issues and the use of solitary confinement.

His destination: a psychiatric hospital in Kamloops, B.C., where he will be swapping his long-held designation as an inmate to that of a regular inpatient. There he will receive mental health treatment under terms laid out by the B.C., Ontario and Yukon mental health acts.

That treatment is something his lawyer, Anik Morrow, said Nehass was severely lacking during his years — many spent in segregation — at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre (WCC) after being charged for a violent Watson Lake knifepoint assault in late 2011.

“I have always said … it’s proper mental health care for Mr. Nehass that’s needed, not the criminalization of mental illness, and that’s what was happening here,” Morrow told reporters outside the court.

“(His family) is in agreement that they would like to have their boy, Michael, back, and what that means is they want him back in the way he used to be … they all want treatment for him.”

Nehass is scheduled to arrive at the Hillside Centre in Kamloops, B.C., on Sept. 18 from the Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences in Whitby, Ont., where he has been a ward of the forensic psychiatry unit since late 2016. According to the transport order, signed by Justice Ronald Veale, Ontario Shores will “deliver Mr. Nehass to the RCMP” or other qualified authorities, who will then transport him to the Hillside Centre. The order also authorizes the “appropriate use of sedation” and “physical pinel restraints” by “experienced, trained and authorized personnel when necessary and solely to maintain safe travel.”

Nehass’ father and a sibling will be moving from the Yukon to British Columbia to be closer to him, Morrow said, and depending on how treatment goes, Nehass may eventually be moved to “lower-level infrastructure” such as a group home or assisted living.

Morrow added she was “extremely grateful” to the British Columbia government for finding Nehass a bed, taking and returning calls “at the speed of light” and understanding Nehass’ situation “through a mental illness lens, not a security lens.”

But it’s not the legal ending the defence lawyer wanted.

The transport order came four days after the Crown attorney in Nehass’ case, Eric Marcoux, entered a Crown stay Friday morning, essentially bringing all court proceedings against Nehass to a halt. In Canadian law, a Crown stay cannot be contested by a judge or the defence and also allows the Crown to revive the charges within a year.

In her scathing half-hour address to the court following the Crown stay, Morrow dubbed the stay a “manoeuvre” that prevented her from further pursuing her application for a judicial stay, the hearing for which was supposed to start that same day. Had the judicial stay been granted by Veale, it would not have only permanently stayed Nehass’ charges but allowed Morrow to present her evidence — 15 volumes of it — to the court about her allegations that there was an abuse of process and that Nehass’ Charter rights were violated.

“Ultimately, by staying the case and doing it by way of a Crown stay and therefore not providing us with the tools and powers of the court, Mr. Nehass is cut free from the justice system umbilical cord but he is … unceremoniously dumped on the sidewalk in Ontario and clearly the Crown feels no responsibility in that regard,” Morrow had said. “And I think that is shameful.”

The last statement caused Marcoux to object and, after being told by Veale that he intended to listen to what Morrow had to say, ask to be excused.

Veale later described Marcoux’s exit as “unfortunate.” The judge also said that he intends to write a memorandum on Nehass’ case, describing it as “far too important to simply disappear.”

Nehass, who has been appearing in court from Ontario via video link, was visibly agitated throughout the proceedings Tuesday, at times interrupting Morrow and Veale to demand he be allowed to return to Whitehorse.

“I would like to come home now…. I need to go back to Whitehorse,” Nehass said, echoing comments he made following the Crown stay last week.

Under the strict framework of the transport order, that won’t be happening, Morrow told media Tuesday. She remained critical about the Crown stay, describing it as a “gag order” on evidence about alleged conditions and shortfalls in the Yukon justice and mental health system she said should concern everyone.

“This is a situation the entire country needs to deal with. We have to start looking at how we’re incarcerating individuals, what we’re trying to achieve when we incarcerate them.… If you can say a person presumed innocent is mentally ill can be segregated in their cell … and then be shackled and belly-chained and cuffed when they go to the shower, I think that’s a very wrong statement about what you do in Canada,” she said.

“It’s not about pointing fingers. It’s about solving the problem.… It’s about respect for your people at the end of the day,” Morrow said. “Do the Yukon people know they don’t have a mental health infrastructure capable of serving their needs?”

Contact Jackie Hong at jackie.hong@yukon-news.com

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