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Nunavik’s first young offenders centre opens in Salluit

As a new youth justice law wends its way through Parliament, a new young offenders’ custody centre opens its doors in Nunavik.

By JANE GEORGE

SALLUIT — When Salluit’s new rehabilitation centre opens March 30, troubled youth from Nunavik will finally be able to stay in the region during their detention periods.

The multi-million dollar centre has places for 14 young people, 14-18 years old. They’ll be referred into the centre’s custody from court, according to guidelines set out in Quebec’s Youth Protection Act and the Young Offenders Act.

These future residents will include those convicted of offences as well as others who simply need a structured environment and specialized services. Coming from communities throughout Nunavik, they’ll remain at the centre for up to two years.

The new building, overlooking the community of Salluit, is designed to look quite inviting from the outside, although inside, it’s not entirely a cozy place. The closed custody section, which will be kept under constant surveillance, consists of four stark rooms, resembling cells, and two isolation rooms.

The open section of the centre, where most residents will live, is much more inviting, with a large kitchen, dining and living area. There are also classrooms and guest rooms for visiting family members.

Making sure that all the necessary equipment and resources are in place for the arrival of the centre’s first residents hasn’t been easy.

Jean Gratton, director of social services and rehabilitation at the Tulattavik Health Centre, says that travel in and out of Salluit, whose windswept airport is known for its poor visibility, presents a continuing problem.

The logistics of travel may, in fact, become “a nightmare” when the centre’s residents have an appearance before a youth court judge in another community.

As well, staffing the centre has been difficult.

“The challenge is to recruit a competent staff, both locally and from the outside,” said Gratton. “It’s very hard.”

It’s also been complicated to provide training to local educators.

At the regional health board’s request, the Kativik School Board prepared a curriculum designed to prepare workers for the centre and other positions in the health and social services field.

But Quebec’s ministry of education refused to accept the KSB’s proposal. A meeting is planned at the end of March with the education department to see just why the program was blocked.

In the meantime, a private centre from Quebec City has given the centre’s future educators a crash course in rehabilitation techniques, complemented by work sessions in Nunavik’s group homes and at the L’Etape Rehabilitation Centre in Val d’Or.

“It’s a kind of ‘kick-start’,” said Louise Béland from the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services. “But it doesn’t make them into specialized educators.”

The centre will employ more than twenty local workers, including educators, guards and support staff. The coordinator, a psychologist, a psycho-educator and two educators are being brought up from the South.

The personnel should all be in Salluit by the end of March, when the first batch of residents arrives from L’Etape in Val d’Or.

L’Etape’s Sylvain Plouffe estimated that hundreds of young people from Nunavik have passed through L’Etape since 1984. Although there are no statistics on the centre’s success in rehabilitation, Pouffe said that kids appreciated its warm and secure environment. Some clients sent back into to difficult family situations even sought out ways to return.

But Plouffe is convinced that the new centre will be able to provide a more culturally appropriate service to its clients.

“It will be the same in principle and spirit,” he said. “But the advantage will be that they will have a program adapted to their needs.”

The new centre’s opening also coincides with the federal government’s new youth justice strategy, one that will likely be much tougher on young offenders.

Last week the Justice Department announced the broad lines of its new Youth Criminal Justice Act, drafted to replace the existing Young Offenders Act.

Under the new law, youths over 14 who are convicted of serious offenses, would receive adult sentences and see their names publicized.

Serious violent offenders who suffer from mental illness would receive special sentences. Parents could also be held responsible for youth offenders’ behaviour, including breaches of probation, and be sent to jail.

But this new act would also open the door to more community-based sentences and alternative measures.

Only a small number of youth are involved in serious and repeat criminal acts, particularly acts of violence. Most charges were more non-violent crimes like theft, drug possession and contempt of court orders.

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