An Indigenous teenager fought back tears as he described being held in isolation for at least three days in a windowless basement room at a youth protection centre in Montreal, and he urged other youths to speak up about their own experiences.
The teenager recounted his ordeal during a news conference Wednesday, months after CBC News reported he had been ordered to self-isolate at a Batshaw Youth and Family Centres group home last May as a COVID-19 precaution.
That week, he went to school, not knowing that it was closed. Once he returned to the group home and told them there were no classes, he was told he would be treated as a COVID-19 risk because he had taken too long to come back and his whereabouts were unclear.
He said his cellphone and computer were confiscated, and he was stuck in a room with no windows — just a glass wall separating it from the basement hallway. He said four days went by before he was allowed outside to get some fresh air.
"I have decided to go public now because I finally realize that what they did was horrible and that it's happened to other Indigenous youth, and people of colour in the system, basically all youth. And it's just not right," he said.
"I just want to make it better for them."
The teen did not come into contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case, but was categorized as a suspected case by an algorithm employed by Batshaw.
CBC News is not identifying him because he is in the province's youth protection system.
Wednesday's news conference was organized by the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR). The non-profit group said it would help the teenager file a complaint with the province's human rights commission, and ask it to open an investigation into how he was treated.
The teenager said, ultimately, he was removed from isolation after it was ruled he did not have COVID-19. He also said it took days for him to get tested.
"I was clearly [being] punished for coming home late from school, and I was treated like a criminal in prison in solitary confinement," he said.
"This was not about COVID-19."
The Montreal Indigenous Community Network was made aware of the teenager's situation after his teacher stopped by the group home to drop off school supplies and noticed his living conditions.
In an interview, Linda See, the director of youth protection for Batshaw, said a child under the centre's care would never be forced to stay indoors 24 hours per day.
"No child has ever been restricted from going out of the unit to get fresh air," she said, adding that it would be "a violation of their rights."
Group home did nothing wrong, health board ruled
A few weeks after the teenager's isolation period ended, the regional health board responsible for Montreal's West Island and Batshaw reviewed the events, according to a document obtained by CBC News.
The board's service quality and complaints commission found that the group home followed the COVID-19 protocols that were in place at the time.
"For the youth who do not show symptoms, the 14-day isolation is maintained to monitor any changes to the youth," the commission's report read.
"The youth can still start showing symptoms later on in that 14-day isolation period."
The report also disputed several of the teenager's claims. It said he was able to use a computer, and he had "access to fresh airtime in the courtyard twice a day."
The report acknowledged that the student was held in a windowless room — it referred to it as "the nest" — because other rooms were occupied.
It also pointed out that the glass wall in the student's room allowed him to get some sunlight from the nearby hallway.
"[The commission] is satisfied with these findings and outcome," the report stated. "The intervention file is now closed."
'This is very, very egregious'
On Wednesday, the student said he had had several brief conversations with someone from the regional health board, but that it was not made clear to him what kind of complaint he could file, or whether he had a right to a lawyer or to seek the help of an adult.
"All I want is respect. I want dignity. I want security," he said. "We are young, we are Indigenous and we still have our human rights."
According to Fo Niemi, the executive director for CRARR, filing a complaint with the human rights commission is necessary, given what he considered to be a flawed and biased complaint review process by the board.
"Somebody should be held accountable," he said. "This is very, very egregious, and this is a very, very concerning situation and it should not be swept under the rug."
He also wants the province's junior health minister, Lionel Carmant, to get involved in the matter.
In late September, the Native Women's Shelter in Montreal suspended their work with an advisory committee at Batshaw, because it felt that many of their concerns regarding systemic racism in youth protection services had yet to be addressed.
See, the director of youth protection for Batshaw, said the agency has taken many steps to adapt its services to Indigenous youth under its care, thanks to advice from several local groups.