Healing lodge opens door to positive change

Funding for a first-of-its-kind healing lodge in Thompson is a move in the right direction for Manitoba’s youth justice system.

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Opinion

Funding for a first-of-its-kind healing lodge in Thompson is a move in the right direction for Manitoba’s youth justice system.

Last week, Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen committed $2 million to the development of a culturally appropriate, community-led corrections facility for First Nations youth in the north. Healing lodges exist elsewhere in the province, but this project, which will be overseen by Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, is the first centre dedicated to serving Indigenous kids.

The centre will also fill a resource gap in northern Manitoba, which currently has no youth jails or transitional sites.

Healing lodge for youth key to shift in justice system

The healing lodge will be an opportunity for youth to be able to access help, said MKO Grand Chief Garrison Settee. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

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Manitoba’s first healing lodge for First Nations youth involved in the justice system will be built in Thompson so northern children can get support and cultural programs closer to home.

The province will give $2 million to Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Inc., a political advocacy group that represents 26 northern First Nations, to set up and run 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 news conference at MKO’s Winnipeg headquarters, Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen said the facility “won’t look like a traditional incarcerated setting.”

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This is an opportunity to chart a new path, not only for incarcerated youth, but for Manitoba Justice as a whole.

An opening date for the lodge has not been set, but the facility will roll out in three phases focused on a restorative justice model. The first phase will see a 20 bed open-custody unit with community transition programs established in Thompson; the second will add addiction and mental-health supports; and the third will include employment and skills training.

Programming will be informed by elders, subject experts and community leaders, and the centre won’t look anything like a traditional jail.

It’s a holistic approach to corrections that aims to address the root causes of criminal behaviour, thereby reducing rates of recidivism among young offenders. It’s an approach First Nations leaders and northern community organizations have been seeking for years, and one that should be applied throughout the province — for incarcerated minors and adults alike.

Indigenous people are heavily overrepresented in Manitoba jails, and the statistics are just as stark for the youth justice system. In 2018, more than 80 per cent of those in custody under 18 years old were Indigenous. While fewer young people are being given custodial sentences, as evidenced by the recently announced plans to close of the Agassiz Youth Centre in Portage la Prairie, Indigenous youth still make up the bulk of those serving time.

Nobody is born a criminal, but First Nations children certainly have the chips stacked against them. Decades of government attempts at dismantling Indigenous communities and ways of life — through the residential school system, the Sixties Scoop and child welfare programs — have created an epidemic of intergenerational trauma.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Minister of Justice Kelvin Goertzen and MKO Grand Chief Garrison Settee.

As described in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s final report, this legacy has led to high rates of addiction, mental-health issues, family violence and incarceration within Indigenous communities — all of which put young people at greater risk of criminal involvement.

Governments have much to atone for, and a lot of work to do before reconciliation can be achieved. Youth justice reform is a small piece of the puzzle, but one that can make a big difference for future generations.

In order for youth who become involved in the justice system to live a fulfilling, productive life upon release, adequate social supports need to be provided while in custody and during reintegration with the community. By focusing on rehabilitation instead of punishment, with a full slate of wraparound programs, Thompson’s new healing lodge has the potential to keep incarcerated and at-risk youth from getting further entrenched in the jail system.

Last week’s funding announcement is a recognition from Manitoba Justice that the status quo isn’t working for Indigenous youth. The healing lodge is an opportunity for the department to reassess its approach and learn from First Nations governments and communities. It’s an important step on the very long road toward reconciliation.

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