Justice Dept. aims to improve jail programs

The Department of Justice is trying to make the programming at Whitehorse Correctional Centre more culturally relevant to Yukon's First Nations.

The Department of Justice is trying to make the programming at Whitehorse Correctional Centre more culturally relevant to Yukon’s First Nations.

Letters have been sent out to all 14 First Nations asking for input into how programs in the Yukon’s only jail could be better tailored to First Nation inmates.

According to the latest statistics, 73 per cent of the 322 people admitted to the Whitehorse Correctional Centre between April and September 2015 were of First Nation descent.

The Yukon’s Corrections Act, which was updated in 2009, says cultural needs have to be integrated into programs and services. Last year Canada’s auditor general criticized the department for not meeting that requirement.

The jail’s core programs help address criminal behaviour. That includes classes on violence prevention, substance abuse, respectful relationships and emotional management. But those are all based on programs from other jurisdictions.

That means that while a few have a First Nations component, none are targeting Yukon First Nations specifically, said department spokesperson Dan Cable.

The jail does offer culturally relevant programs like carving and drum making, but those don’t directly address criminality, he said.

The idea is to find programs that are the best of both worlds – programs that are culturally relevant but also specifically address criminal behaviour.

Cable said it’s too early to say how Yukon First Nation culture will be woven into the current programming.

“We’re interested in having a conversation about what we’re offering now and how we can adapt it, and we’re also asking First Nations ‘Are you doing anything out in your communities that might be interesting for that purpose?’”

Each First Nation has been sent a summary of the programs offered at the jail. Cable said the department will connect with each one as suggestions start coming back. No timeline has been set for when this could finish.

“We’ll always adapt to whatever the First Nation wants. If they want us to come out to their community, then we’ll go out there. If they feel they need to come into town to have a look at the correctional centre we’ll work that out. We’re flexible in that regard and we have time.”

Kwanlin Dun’s director of justice, Jeanie Dendys, said the First Nation is interested in participating in the process.

“Kwanlin Dun is pleased that the minister of justice is taking this approach; an approach that is in step with both the Truth and Reconciliation Commission final report and the auditor general’s report on corrections in the Yukon,” she said in a statement.

“We view both these reports as an opportunity to formally engage in a review and assessment of all correctional programming including community-based programs.

“Kwanlin Dun First Nation has had a great deal of success with its land-based healing program at Jackson Lake and it will have a lot to offer on this important matter.”

With 14 distinct First Nations in the Yukon, Cable acknowledges that coming up with appropriate programming will take time.

As it stands, the legislation doesn’t have a definition of what culturally relevant programming means.

“We have to go ahead and try to define it ourselves and come up with something and we don’t know what that is. So this is where we have to have a dialogue and the dialogue is going to be ongoing,” he said, adding, “We’re not going to impose a definition of it on First Nations. We want to hear from them what they feel it is.”

Contact Ashley Joannou at