Manitoba’s first healing lodge for First Nations youth in conflict with the justice system will be built in Thompson so northern children can get support and cultural programs closer to home.
The province will provide $2 million to Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Inc., a political advocacy group representing 26 northern First Nations, to establish and operate the facility for boys and girls.
The lodge will open in phases, with the first having 20 open custody beds and community transition programs at an undetermined site.
At a press conference at MKO’s Winnipeg headquarters, Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen said the facility “will not look like a traditional prison environment.”
“It’s going to be a lot more of supportive help than keeping someone locked in a cell,” he said.
Officials have not committed to a targeted opening date.
Thompson Mayor Colleen Smook said the city raised the need for a restorative justice center years ago.
“It’s definitely one of the best things to happen to Thompson in a long time,” she said.
Ainsley Krone, Manitoba’s acting child and youth advocate, welcomed the announcement and said she hopes the province will set up similar sites in other areas.
“I would welcome any announcements of programs taking place in other parts of the province,” she said.
The Thompson Lodge will add more court resources to northern Manitoba, which does not have youth jails or transitional sites.
The region’s incarcerated young offenders serve their sentences hundreds of kilometers from their homes at the Manitoba Youth Center in Winnipeg or the Agassiz Youth Center in Portage la Prairie.
Manitoba Justice announced Thursday that it will close Agassiz on July 22 and move inmates to the youth center. Agassiz and the youth center are operating well below capacity. Fewer young people are serving custodial sentences, Krone said.
Goertzen believes there will be “better outcomes” if First Nations youth are closer to their families and receive support that is tailored to them.
The second phase will focus on programs for people with addiction or mental health issues. The third phase will present employment and vocational training.
For at-risk youth, the lodge will provide transitional housing options and support from community justice and probation workers.
The site will also accommodate non-violent youth detained under the Intoxicated Detention Act. Currently cells from the Thompson RCMP Detachment are in use.
There are plans to add more beds to the first 20, said Goertzen, who hopes the federal government will provide money to offset operating costs.
Goertzen and MKO Grand Chief Garrison Settee said elders, experts and community leaders will help grow the slate of programs, and planning is already underway.
They hope an Indigenous-led site with culturally relevant programs on traditional northern lands will help prevent recidivism, keep at-risk children out of trouble and aid Manitoba’s reconciliation efforts.
“It’s an opportunity for young people to get the help they need to get out of the system,” Settee said.
He said the programs will aim to tackle the “root causes” of crime.
“Most of it has to do with a lot of pain they’ve been through through intergenerational trauma,” he said.
When young people leave the lodge and return to their communities, staff will follow up and programs will always be available to them so they are not left behind, he added.
For years, Settee said, First Nations leaders have called for strategies to address the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in prisons.
“I am convinced that there is no point in incarcerating our young people. They need access to programs and resources to navigate through the intergenerational impacts of residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, day schools, and the child welfare system. ,” he said.
Krone said Manitoba Justice still has a lot of work to do to help youth in the justice system, as its compliance rate with recommendations from its office’s latest annual report is only 30%.
She called on the province to end its use of “inappropriate” and “harmful” solitary confinement and segregation in youth prisons.
Krone said the government must do more to meet the mental health needs of young people in custody.
“They don’t always get the support they need,” she said.
Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont echoed that call.
“There are a series of critical reforms that have yet to take place because many Indigenous peoples are still being singled out by the justice system,” he said in an emailed statement.
“A healing lodge is good because it will focus on therapy rather than punishment, but we still need legal aid reform and funding, more specialized housing for offenders with mental illness and a Cree translation. These are all much needed action items. ”