The Yukon NDP is calling for an inquiry into the Michael Nehass case, with leader Liz Hanson saying there are deep-rooted issues within the Yukon justice system and at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre that need to be exposed and addressed.
“The system is clearly not working just fine, it’s not working fine for the inmates, it’s not working fine for the staff at the correctional facility and it’s not working fine for the community at large,” Hanson said in an interview Sept. 14.
“We need to take action and not do more studies on the whole damn thing.”
Hanson’s comments come after Nehass’s nearly six-year legal fracas ended earlier this month when Crown prosecutor Eric Marcoux entered a Crown stay, effectively ending all court proceedings against Nehass. Nehass is due to be transferred from a forensic psychiatry unit in Ontario to a hospital in Kamloops, B.C., where he will be treated as a regular patient.
During his years at the WCC before being sent to Ontario, Nehass spent an extended period of time in solitary confinement during which his mental health severely deteriorated. Hanson said that kind of treatment is unacceptable.
“I think we have a right to know what transpired there and (Justice Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee) has an obligation to facilitate that so it doesn’t ever happen again,” Hanson said. “If there’s a systemic bias towards this kind of treatment of individuals, then we need to know that and make it clear that that’s not what the expectation of the community is.”
An inquiry should examine, among other things, the treatment of inmates at the WCC, WCC staff training and whether Crown prosecutors working in the Yukon have a proper understanding of and background in things like Aboriginal law and Gladue reports, Hanson said. She added that she hasn’t had a chance to speak to McPhee since the conclusion of the Nehass case, but plans to bring the idea of an inquiry up to the minister informally next week.
“I’m hopeful that (we have a) minister of justice who understands that having a legal system is not the same as having a justice system,” Hanson said.
Meanwhile, Council of Yukon First Nations Grand Chief Peter Johnston is continuing to emphasize the need to keep First Nations people from entering the justice system at all.
“Michael grew up in my community in Teslin, right? He very much was a young kid growing up, unfortunately, in not necessarily a good situation,” Johnston said, adding that when he was chief of the Teslin Tlingit Council, Nehass’ family, and Nehass himself, and reached out to him for help.
“In Michael’s case … we tried to do as much as we could without crossing a line,” Johnston said, noting that Nehass was not a TTC citizen but had family that was.
“We took him home to Teslin. We housed him in Teslin. But unfortunately there (was) just not a lot of services that we could access for him to help support him in the system. That is where it is tough, because the lack of professionals in mental health let alone just the trauma and all the stuff, it’s tough.”
Nehass’ story, like that of many others, is one that can’t be separated from intergenerational trauma that’s all too common for First Nations people, Johnston continued.
“Even with his family, dealing with the effects of residential school and other traumas in their lives are not able to effectively deal with Michael in the way that he could have been dealt with.”
“It’s bigger than Michael Nehass, unfortunately…. It’s sad to see that a lot of people at the WCC are younger people, and it’s the impacts of those traumas that we’ve gone through as nations.”
Johnston said he wasn’t sure if an inquiry into what happened to Nehass would “solve anything” and “that there’s been a lot of inquiries that haven’t really gone anywhere.”
“For me, it’s about preventative maintenance. It’s about improving our education system. If we could put more support into healthy families and proper education, we wouldn’t have to deal with the judicial system,” he said.
“It’s not about improving the justice system, it’s about improving society…. Sure, Michael would have been a different person if he had some support, and professional support, not just family, but professional support.”
What’s needed now, and has been needed for a long time, Johnston said, is education, treatment, respect and support, no matter how angry or lost someone appears to be.
“You can’t give up on people, right?” he said. “You just can’t do that. You just can’t give up on people regardless of what situation they’re in. There’s always hope. But hope is not a method.”
Contact Jackie Hong at firstname.lastname@example.org