A troubling silence

In the next few weeks, several Yukon community justice programs will probably fold. We will all be poorer for it.

In the next few weeks, several Yukon community justice programs will probably fold.

We will all be poorer for it.

And we don’t know whether the Yukon government supports this, or opposes it.

It has been silent on the issue.

We do know this alternative-justice system, funded through $900,000 in grants from the federal and territorial governments, is not a priority for Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s tough-on-crime Conservative government.

It cut its Aboriginal Justice Strategy funding in the last budget. The money runs out at the end of the fiscal year, March 31.

The territory hasn’t cut its funding. But without Ottawa’s contribution, the program is expected to collapse.

The strategy was a product of the 1996 Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People.

In 2004-2005, 89 programs were funded through an Aboriginal Justice Strategy agreement.

Those programs serviced 453 communities for about $6.6 million, according to a joint release from the Council of Yukon First Nations and the Assembly of First Nations.

In the Yukon, nine programs were supported through the strategy.

The Council of Yukon First Nations, Assembly of First Nations and aboriginal leaders have been lobbying hard to keep the programs afloat.

“These programs have integrated Yukon First Nations’ traditional values and practices as well as culturally relevant healing methodologies into the criminal justice system,” said their March 9 letter to federal Justice Minister Douglas Nicholson, Yukon Justice Minister Marian Horne, and Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice.

“As a result, we have had the opportunity to redress in a holistic way the historical harms committed within our communities by past federal and territorial government practices.”

But, so far, no alternative program has been announced.

It isn’t known if any will be proposed.

The Kwanlin Dun Community Social Justice Program is one of the programs on the verge of being snuffed out.

Among other things, the program keeps people out of jail.

Currently, one guy is serving a 16-month sentence in the community. If he wasn’t doing that, he’d be in a cinder-block cell at the dilapidated Whitehorse Correctional Centre, which has been likened to a Third World prison.

While cooling his heels there, he’d be costing society an estimated $300 a day. The cost of that sentence works out to about $144,000.

The Kwanlin Dun program works with about 20 people a year. A youth, child and family program helps more than 35 families a year.

The program costs Ottawa and the territory a total of $250,000 a year.

The Kwanlin Dun program celebrates its 15th anniversary on March 29th. And that will be its last.

Already, workers at Kwanlin Dun First Nation in Whitehorse have received pink slips.

Others can’t be far behind.

The closure of these projects will hamper efforts of both aboriginal and non-aboriginal leaders in the territory to build healthier communities.

They are making a difference.

They must be; after all, the Yukon government stepped in to provide bridge funding for Dawson City’s Community Conferencing Society.

That program has received a six-month reprieve through $25,000 in temporary funding.

There’s no word on the rest.

In fact, there’s no word at all.

The Yukon’s Justice Minister Marian Horne has been mute on the issue.

And that’s surprising.

Territorial officials have failed to explain why Dawson’s program has received funding while the others have been left to languish.

And, though it’s in the middle of drafting, in its words, “the best correctional system in the country,” the territory has been strangely silent on the cancellation of the alternative-justice strategy.

It has not laid out what efforts, if any, it has made to lobby Ottawa for continuation of the strategy.

And it has not said whether it will work to keep the territory’s eight other alternative-justice programs afloat.

First Nations have publicly lobbied to keep them alive.

But it’s unclear if the territory champions the cause.

And that’s troubling.

There’s evidence they help rehabilitate offenders.

They keep youth out of custody and young men out of the dilapidated, unhealthy jail, saving lives and money at the same time.

Ottawa is clearly forcing the cancellation of the programs.

After March 31, experienced people will be laid off. They will move to new jobs, and the existing alternative justice system in the territory will cease to exist.

Rebuilding a new system will, undoubtedly, cost more money. And time.

And, while that’s going on, people will be jailed, which will cost the territory even more money.

If the system has value – and apparently it does, given the temporary funding Dawson received – the territory should be leading the fight for its preservation.

If not, Justice Minister Marian Horne should say as much, and lay out the alternatives so everyone can move on.

Silence is not an option. (RM)

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