A Discussion of the Ontario Ombudsman’s “Lost Opportunities” Report Issued April 26, 2022

  • November 22, 2022
  • Laura Pettigrew

On April 26, 2022, the Ontario Ombudsman released his report, “Lost Opportunities,” concerning an investigation into the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services’ implementation of the decision to close secure custody programs at Creighton Youth Centre in Kenora and J.J. Kelso Youth Centre in Thunder Bay. On March 1, 2021, the Ministry simultaneously closed 25 youth justice programs – 10 of them in Northern Ontario. It transferred out all the affected youth the same day. The Ombudsman’s report revealed that the planning around the closures had been “shrouded in secrecy” with little consultation. The affected facilities were given only a few hours’ notice of the closures and the 22 youth residing in them even less.

The Ministry justified the closures on the basis that the programs had been operating well below capacity for many years and the move would free up almost $40 million annually for investment in other initiatives. However, as news of the closures went public concerns began to surface. Then Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation and Grand Chief Ogichidaa Francis Kavanaugh of Grand Council Treaty #3 wrote an open letter to the Premier denouncing the transfer of vulnerable Indigenous youth further away from their home communities, some while restrained in handcuffs and shackles. The Ombudsman commenced his investigation after receiving a specific complaint about the closure of the secure custody programs in Kenora and Thunder Bay, which together transferred out four Indigenous youth on March 1.

The Ombudsman’s investigation revealed that the Ministry had kept its planning concerning the closures under wraps due to worries that premature disclosure could impact labour relations, create security risks, and affect the treatment and privacy of the young people involved. The Ombudsman found that the Ministry’s limited consultation including with affected Indigenous communities, “left it without valuable insight into the unique nature of these centres and the Indigenous youth they served.” For instance, the Ministry hadn’t realized that its standard method of transporting youth between secure facilities in handcuffs and leg irons might attract criticism. It hadn’t known that some youth centres did not use or even own leg irons and it was not sensitive to the reality that affected Indigenous communities would be horrified by the practice given “the government’s historical legacy of forcibly removing Indigenous children from their families.”