Kwanlin Dün First Nation Chief Doris Bill, left, and Council of Yukon First Nations Grand Chief Peter Johnston speak about the state of First Nations people in the Yukon prison system at a press conference Sept. 5. (Jackie Hong/Yukon News)

Yukon First Nations chiefs speak out as Nehass legal saga resumes

‘It is the system that is failing the individuals’

Mental health support, “holistic” programming and a sense of hope are among the things First Nations people in the Yukon prison system desperately need but are lacking, two Yukon First Nations chiefs told media Sept. 5.

The press conference held by Council of Yukon First Nations Grand Chief Peter Johnston and Kwanlin Dün First Nation Chief Doris Bill came an hour before the first day of another round of court proceedings for Tahltan Nation man Michael Nehass began.

Nehass’ first trial ended in February of this year, after he was convicted of assault with a weapon and forcible confinement. However, Justice Scott Brooker declared a mistrial because Nehass’s mental health had deteriorated so badly following years of being held in solitary confinement that he was unfit to take part in his own sentencing.

The chiefs said that while they would not be commenting specifically on the current status of Nehass’ case for privacy reasons, his “unfortunate” situation was an example of the systemic barriers First Nations people moving through the justice system face.

“From the First Nation perspective, we are an industry when it comes to foster care, correctional facilities — we have a high number of our citizens that are in the system,” Johnston said. “It is the system that is failing the individuals.… We’re building bigger jails and smaller high schools rather than the opposite.”

Prompted by a reporter’s question, Johnston said he and Bill were speaking out about the problem now, years after Nehass’s legal case began, because they wanted help “shed some light” on how people are dealt with in correctional facilities.

Nehass, who’s currently being held at the Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences, appeared briefly in court via video conference Sept. 5 before proceedings were adjourned. His lawyer, Anik Morrow, is asking for charges against him to be stayed.

Meanwhile, Crown prosecutor Eric Marcoux is asking for a mental fitness assessment and the Yukon government will be applying for intervener status, which, if successful, would allow it to participate and comment on the court proceedings.

At the press conference, Bill said that while KDFN was consulted about the WCC before it was built, the First Nation’s suggestions weren’t reflected when the jail actually opened.

“What we have is something close to a maximum security prison and that is not what we wanted.… From Kwanlin Dün’s perspective, we’d like to see programming and services from a holistic perspective. We want input into the program and into the services that are provided, not only within WCC but throughout the territory,” she said.

“I believe if First Nations people are over-represented in the system, then we need programs that are designed by us for us, for our people…. So it stands to reason, I think that we take the lead on some of these programs and services.”

Johnston agreed.

“There’s been a number of times where elders who have gone and worked within (the WCC), they feel that people there need for more support when it comes to not only cultural relevancy when it comes to programming but … some hope given to them while they’re there,” he said.

Both chiefs also emphasized the need for systems and programs to keep First Nations people from entering the correctional system in the first place, including ones to support early childhood development, education, addiction treatment, safe housing and accessible education.

“I think that if we can be more preventative, if we can help support the families at a younger age, (there are) less chances they’ll end up in a facility such as that,” Johnston said, adding that the Yukon justice, education and health departments need to get rid of the “silos” between them and work together.

Both chiefs agreed that they’ve seen “some improvement” over the years, but Bill said territorial government departments, communities and First Nations still “all need to get on the same page.”

“I still see people going in many different directions and we need to get on the same page and talk about a way forward,” she said.

With files from Ashley Joannou

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