Change is needed within the Yukon justice system, say a First Nations elder and the executive director of a First Nations organization. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News)

Nehass case shows need to change Yukon justice system, says First Nation organization and elder

‘Talk about reconciliation — where is it?’

Michael Nehass’ treatment during his years in jail show the “real need” for change within the Yukon justice system, the executive director of a First Nations organization and a First Nations elder said outside the Whitehorse courthouse Friday.

“I think … this case of Michael Nehass has shown the world about … not only gaps, but the real need to overhaul our justice system and our mental health systems as it pertains to Indigenous people,” Liard Aboriginal Women’s Society executive director Ann Maje Raider told media after Crown attorney Eric Marcoux entered a stay in the Nehass case.

The stay essentially stops all court proceedings against Nehass, marking the beginning of the end of a five-year legal saga that raised concerns about the use of solitary confinement and the treatment of First Nations inmates and inmates with mental health issues. The Crown has the ability to revive the proceedings within a year. Nehass’ defence lawyer, Anik Morrow, had applied for a judicial stay, which would have both permanently ended proceedings and brought forward to the court allegations of Nehass’ mistreatment and Charter violations.

“The Yukon does not have a facility to (properly) deal with mental health issues and I think (the Whitehorse Correctional Centre) and the Yukon government need to take steps to put changes in place at the corrections (centre) and how they are treating Indigenous people, absolutely,” Maje Raider said.

“Nobody talks about what they did to Michael. What did they do to Michael that brought Michael from a state where we could’ve gotten help to a place where now he’s severely mentally ill?” she continued.

“I think it goes beyond Michael. I think it goes to Indigenous people. I think the injustices here within the justice system has to change in how we treat Indigenous people.”

Roger Ellis, who said he was one of six elders currently on the WCC’s Elders Advisory Group, agreed.

“It’s (about) the way that the First Nations are being treated (in the justice system),” Ellis said.

“You need to treat them like a human, not like an animal and cage them up. They need help. They need counselling, stuff like that, so they can learn to be in society.”

Ellis added he thought recommendations from the Elders Advisory Group often fell on deaf ears.

“We can make recommendations … (but) we don’t see any changes to the system. And that’s the sad part — why are we there?” he said. “We’re not making (any) headway here. Are we just put there just to make it look good, you know, to say, ‘Okay, we’re involving the elders in this,’ you know? It’s a slap to the elders.”

Maje Raider said there needs to be a shift towards supporting mental health and addiction treatment programs for First Nations people that take place on traditional land, both as a healing method and to prevent people from entering the correctional system at all.

“(The Yukon government has) got to understand, community people want their own culture, they want their own treatment centres where they’re using their own elders and their own culture,” she said.

She added that she was “aghast” when Crown attorney Marcoux left the courtroom after Marrow said, in an address after Marcoux entered the stay, that the Crown’s actions were “shameful.”

Ellis said he agreed with Morrow, and with the other issues she raised about Nehass’ treatment in WCC.

“I’m glad she brought it up in the court system, because that’s what needs to be heard and the public needs to hear this,” he said. “It’s like the residential school stuff, it’s the same thing, the way people are being treated. Talk about reconciliation — where is it? We’re still being mistreated, so there is no reconciliation there.

“I just pray that the justice system is changed, not only for the First Nations people, but for (everybody in) the system.”

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