The government was wrong and unreasonable in how it closed custody and detention programs at youth justice facilities in Ontario's northwest region last year, the provincial ombudsman has concluded.
The Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services closed 25 custody and detention programs across Ontario on March 1, 2021, forcing 22 young people to move with only a few hours notice.
Ombudsman Paul Dubé began an investigation two weeks later.
His report "Lost Opportunities," released publicly Tuesday, looks at how the closures at the Creighton Youth Centre in Kenora and the J.J. Kelso Youth Centre in Thunder Bay were conducted, rather than reviewing the policy decision.
Dubé's report said closing the centres was "an exercise of unprecedented scope" and involved months of confidential planning. It acknowledged the ministry was worried about the potential for issues with labour relations and security risks.
"What we found, however, was there was too much of an emphasis on that confidentiality and that secrecy, and it was not adequately balanced with the best interests of these youth," Dubé said in an interview on Tuesday, adding youth in detention are vulnerable, deserve support and need to have a voice.
"The way some of them were uprooted and transferred in the closure operation, we found their interests were not sufficiently considered."
The ombudsman report noted the facilities had been operating below capacity for years and the closures would save $40 million a year.
Dubé said the ministry missed opportunities by not engaging with Indigenous groups, key staff members and justice partners, or the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs.
Rights were 'ignored': First Nations leader
Immediately following the closures, concerns were raised that Indigenous youth were being moved further from their home communities, and restrained in handcuffs and leg irons during the transfers.
Anna Betty Achneepineskum, a deputy grand chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, said the youth had already been in places where they were losing their connection to families and communities prior to the closures.
"It just seemed the rights of these young people were all ignored," she said.
"I'm aware that there were some hardships where children were sent down to southern Ontario from their homes in northern Ontario. They were even more displaced and also disconnected from their families. For them to have to be coming back for court, that in itself is quite a hardship."
Achneepineskum said youth in detention facilities face isolation from family, friends and community.
Dubé said two youth were particularly affected by the closures. One was in the process of gender transition, and had been benefiting from counselling and supports available within the facility. The other was transferred to another facility, where there was conflict with another youth that led to tensions that could have been avoided through communication.
"The situation could have been less impactful on the two youth had the ministry had more knowledge about their situations," he said.
The report included 16 recommendations, including:
Identifying details of conflicts between youth.
Ensuring staff are aware of the ministry's policy for young transgender people.
That a debriefing session be conducted to review the closures.
"At the heart of all this is finding a proper balance between confidentiality concerns and the need to focus on the best interests of the youth involved," he said.
Sheri Norlen, interim executive director of the Creighton Youth Centre, said she was pleased with the recommendations.
"I think there are some definite ones that need to be looked at in collaboration with communities, families, Indigenous communities and youth specifically, addressing the fact that they're being sent out of their region and their district, as far as from Kenora, a 15-hour drive," she said.
Dubé's report said the ministry has accepted all the recommendations.