Sobering centre shuttles down and out to the burbs

A sobering centre is being built at the new Whitehorse jail. And it's a bad idea, say Dr. Bruce Beaton and Champagne/Aishihik Chief James Allen. The Department of Justice credits two recent reports for its decision: an RCMP review that recommends putting the centre at the jail and Beaton and Allen's report.

A sobering centre is being built at the new Whitehorse jail.

And it’s a bad idea, say Dr. Bruce Beaton and Champagne/Aishihik Chief James Allen.

The Department of Justice credits two recent reports for its decision: an RCMP review that recommends putting the centre at the jail and Beaton and Allen’s report, Task Force on Acutely Intoxicated Persons at Risk, which says the opposite.

Though Justice officials claim they were acting on the report’s recommendations, the jail solution was in the works before either document was completed.

Justice favours a new centre at the jail and it is already “well advanced in its planning,” says Beaton and Allen’s report, dated December 31.

But “the plan has several disadvantages from our point of view,” it says.

“First and foremost, Whitehorse Correctional Centre is a jail.”

Not true, said Justice Minister Marian Horne.

“We have to start thinking outside the box,” she said on Tuesday afternoon.

“It’s not a jail, per se. It’s a multi-use secure centre.”

No matter how you frame it, “detention there will still be viewed as punishment,” says the Beaton/Allen report.

In fact, the sobering centre will only be available for “acutely intoxicated individuals who are detained or arrested by the RCMP,” according to a government news release.

As Beaton and Allen researched their report, one thing became clear – the new sobering centre should be located beside an improved detox facility.

And it should be in downtown Whitehorse.

“If any future facility is to play a significant role in the lives of (the chronic alcoholics and drug addicts) it must be accessible and available to the people it serves,” says the report.

Building a secure assessment centre at the jail, in Takhini, “is not central,” it says.

“Nor is it a part of either the social community or the treatment community.”

Police will be driving people up there, said Horne.

“And when they get out, the RCMP will drive them back downtown,” she said.

The government detox will remain downtown, at the Sarah Steele Building, added Horne.

However, “the newly located sobering centre should be co-located with an expanded detox,” says the Beaton/Allen report.

“It is only logical that these two teams should be integrated, not duplicated.”

Not all addicts want to quit, but when they do it’s often because of a crisis in their lives, says the report.

“Therefore, we should make the opportunity to achieve sobriety easily available at this time of crisis,” it says.

“We should make it as simple as walking through an adjacent doorway from the sobering center into the detox unit.”

But the new sobering centre is set to be built more than three-and-a-half kilometres from the detox.

Not only should those two units be side-by-side, there should also be a shelter in very close proximity, says Beaton and Allen’s report.

Researching the report, Beaton visited centres in Vancouver, Winnipeg and Ottawa.

The Main Street Project in Winnipeg created a shelter alongside its sobering centre and detox.

“Clients of the sobering center, when no longer in need of detention but with no place to go, can walk around the corner from the sobering centre exit to the shelter entrance for the rest of the night,” says the report.

In Ottawa, Canadian Medical Association president Jeff Turnbull runs medical detox centres alongside homeless shelters, offering clients access to medical, mental health and dental care, management of medication use, vet care for their pets and even social and spiritual therapies, says the report.

“The Yukon needs such a facility.”

Beaton and Allen’s 32-page report painted a well-researched, compassionate picture of what the Yukon could do to help its chronic, often homeless addicts.

It stressed the need to treat these individuals with “dignity in a nonjudgmental manner.”

Whitehorse has no shelter that accepts the acutely intoxicated, even the Salvation Army turns them away, says the report.

Having no shelter “is no longer adequate,” it says.

The Whitehorse General Hospital’s emergency department is the only facility offering physician services to the acutely intoxicated, day and night.

As a result, the hospital is overtaxed and facing a “staffing and physical resource crisis caring for the acutely intoxicated,” says the report.

One of every 20 patients who undergo severe withdrawal, known as DTs, die.

And there’s no one in the territory trained in addictions medicine, says the report.

Citing Winnipeg’s model, where clients enter willingly, there should be a combined detox and sobering centre with a medical director specializing in addictions medicine, it says.

And the sobering centre should be welcoming, says the report.

It should not be “seen as a place for punishment, but instead as a place of safety and security in a time of need,” it says.

In Winnipeg, where the facility is linked with a detox and a shelter, many of the clients enter willingly, even if they’ve been physically detained by street outreach workers or police, says the report.

“We’re taking all the recommendations into consideration,” said Horne.

And building a secure assessment centre at the jail “is what we’ve taken as the best solution,” she said.

The centre will be staffed 24 hours by registered nurses and corrections officers, she said.

The centre will have male and female group cells, individual cells, youth cells and a harm-reduction cell, as well as a medical interview room and a police interview room.

The centre is projected to cost $3.5 million, and the RCMP will contribute 50 per cent of the capital construction costs.

Operation and maintenance costs will also be shared, said Horne.

The new centre will replace the drunk tank at the Whitehorse RCMP detachment downtown, she said.

It will combine “secure and short term custody with medical assessment for all persons detained by the RCMP,” says the government’s press release.

“But don’t call it a jail,” added Horne.

Contact Genesee Keevil at