A Yukon court’s decision to release a dangerous offender from prison and order him home to Old Crow has blindsided the community, according to the chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation.
“Christopher Schafer was suddenly ordered to be launched into our remote fly-in village of 250 people with two RCMP officers and no clinical health staff,” Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm told reporters on Oct. 11.
“This deep insensitivity is an affront to the women and girls and our community members who support them. This is nothing short of dangerous.”
Tizya-Tramm condemned Schafer’s release without advanced warning or a safety plan. His government blocked Schafer’s arrival with an emergency order on Oct. 8.
Now, the First Nation is requesting an apology and a public inquiry into the court process that ordered his release.
Schafer, 45, is a repeat sex offender convicted of numerous sexual and violent crimes. He was first charged with sexual assault in Old Crow in 1999 and faces assault charges as recent as Oct. 2. He was set to complete his current sentence of incarcaration last weekend.
Schafer’s bail plan was determined by the Yukon Territorial Court’s Justice of the Peace on Oct. 7. He was ordered to board a plane to Old Crow directly after leaving prison on Oct. 8.
Upon receiving the release order from Old Crow RCMP on the evening of Oct. 7, the Vuntut Gwitchin government issued an emergency declaration banning Schafer from entering the community. It also prohibited anyone from helping Schafer enter Old Crow or Vuntut Gwitchin territory. Violating the order risked a punishment of six months’ jail time.
Trapped between violating his release order and violating the emergency order, Schafer remained in custody over the long weekend. His case returned to court on Oct. 11 but was left unresolved.
Crown counsel William McDiarmid and defence counsel Nora Mooney told the court they were working on a new bail plan.
Judge Michael Cozens told the court that no legal conditions existed barring Schafer from Old Crow when the first decision was made on Oct. 7. Earlier in proceedings, McDiarmid said the release order had been “ostensibly reasonable” before the First Nation’s emergency declaration.
Schafer’s next court appearance is scheduled for Oct. 12.
Speaking with reporters after the court proceeding, Tizya-Tramm called Cozens’ comments “illuminating” to systemic issues in the justice system.
“I’m not sure what happened with our past consultation,” Tizya-Tramm said.
The chief explained that he provided the court with a community impact statement last summer. His statement asked for generous notice in advance of Schafer’s return, comparing his return to “unpacking fire” due to the trauma and fear in the community.
Tizya-Tramm continued that for women and girls in Old Crow, the fear is complex. It’s worsened by compounded traumas and housing security issues which is “not the experience of people in Whitehorse per se … it’s concentrated in a small remote village.”
The impact statement outlined a process of reintegration supported by strict probation requirements and safety mechanisms to keep women and girls safe. This plan was built in consultation with the entire community, including Schafer and his family, Tizya-Tramm said.
“Someone just needed to reach out to us. All they had to do was ask, and we would be there in full force to assist,” he said.
When Schafer’s release was abruptly announced, “the pain was visceral” in the community, Tizya-Tramm said.
The First Nation has requested a public apology for the court’s handling of the issue.
In a letter addressed to the federal Justice Minister David Lametti, Tizya-Tramm also requests a public inquiry and counselling services for any citizens affected by Schafer’s release order.
The letter also highlights that the release was ordered just three days after the National Day of Action for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
During a media availability on Oct. 11, Tizya-Tramm and Kwanlin Dün Chief Doris Bill said they are looking forward to a visit from Minister Lametti to discuss First Nations’ consultation within the justice process.
“The community needs to be involved when these people are released into our communities because we’re the ones that pay the price,” Bill said.
The two chiefs stated the need for better reintegration plans in communities, increased mental health services and the reprioritization of community members’ safety.
Bill noted that several action plans have already been published on the topics of justice and reintegration.
“All the work is there, it’s done, we need to start implementing these recommendations,” Bill said.
Contact Gabrielle Plonka at firstname.lastname@example.org