Montreal civil rights group filing human rights complaint over Inuk teen’s treatment
Youth was allegedly isolated in a Batshaw centre basement after suspected of COVID-19 exposure
A civil rights organization wants the Quebec Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission to investigate a Montreal youth and family service centre after an Inuk youth was allegedly made to live in an isolated basement earlier this year.
Fo Niemi, the executive director of the Montreal-based Center for Research-Action on Race Relations, made the announcement at a virtual news conference Wednesday, saying that he’ll be filing a complaint to the commission Thursday regarding alleged abuse at the Batshaw Youth and Family Centres.
The news conference, held over Zoom, was attended by the youth, his high school teacher, and representatives from Montreal’s Indigenous community.
The youth, who was 16 at the time and spoke at Wednesday’s news conference under the pseudonym, “Charles,” said he left for school the morning of May 25.
Not realizing school was cancelled because it was a training day for teachers — known as a pedagogical or “ped” day — Charles said he decided to meet some friends in the afternoon before returning home to Batshaw, later than normal. Quebec law prohibits the identification of young people who are in protective care.
Upon his return, Charles said the centre’s staff questioned where he was, and suspected that he had been exposed to COVID-19, without any testing. From there, he said he was given a garbage bag with some of his belongings and was told to take a shower. He was then transported to the windowless, basement room, where he would spend the next six days in isolation.
Charles said he did not have access to his cellphone or computer for the first few days. He couldn’t go outside for fresh air, he had to ask permission to go to the bathroom, and he was constantly under surveillance by a security camera pointed towards his bed.
“I was treated like a criminal, a prisoner in solitary confinement,” Charles said. “It was really not about COVID-19, and nobody read me my rights when I was put in the room.”
Fighting back tears, Charles said he is going public about his ordeal because he knows he has not been the only person treated that way at Batshaw.
“I finally realized that what they did was horrible and that it’s happened to Indigenous youth,” he said.
Speaking alongside Charles was his high school teacher, who also did not identify his name, or the school where he works. The teacher said that when he found out Charles had been quarantined, he decided to visit Charles to deliver his homework.
The teacher described being shocked at the conditions in which Charles was being housed. He also expressed frustration that it took several days for Batshaw to provide Charles with a COVID-19 test. When a test was finally provided, the sample was lost and Charles had to get tested again the following day. The test came back negative and he was released after that.
“Anybody with a little bit of decency would or should recognize that that is just an incorrect or inhumane way to treat somebody,” the teacher said.
A few days after his release, Charles’ story was reported by the media. That prompted the health and social services department in Montreal’s West Island to launch an investigation that concluded he did have access to his computer, phone and fresh air during his stay.
On June 16, a two-page report about Charles’ isolation, signed by commission delegate Jessica Ford, said the commission “is satisfied with these findings and outcome” and that the case was closed.
The teacher said he was shocked because he was not contacted to provide his account of Charles’ situation. He also said that the report contained several misleading details about what the centre provided Charles during his quarantine.
The teacher said he and Charles made the decision to go public in the fall, largely because the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal called for an investigation into similar allegations at Batshaw.
“This will help get things changed in Batshaw,” the teacher said. “From what I’ve read and what I’ve personally seen, some change needs to get done.”
The Batshaw Youth and Family Centres did not respond to a call from Nunatsiaq News requesting for comment. Nunatsiaq News also emailed the office of Lionel Carmant, Quebec’s minister of health and social services, and did not receive a response.
Nakuset, the director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal, was also tuned in to the press conference. She commended Charles for his bravery and said that his situation is common for Indigenous youth in Batshaw’s care.
“There are others that are in the same predicament but are too afraid [to go public],” she said. “If we stay silent, for sure, nothing is going to happen.”
Charles says he hopes a human rights investigation leads to positive change in the system, especially at Batshaw.
“[I hope] that it changes, changes for the better for all the youth in the system so that they feel like they can actually have a place … to feel comfortable in, a place to be yourself in, and to not have to go through what me and other youth have gone through,” he said.