Michael Nehass may be free from the criminal justice system, but he won’t be walking the streets of Whitehorse anytime soon.
On Tuesday, it was confirmed in Yukon Supreme Court that Nehass, 33, will be transferred from the Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health, a forensic psychiatric hospital in Whitby, to the Hillside Centre, a civil mental health facility in Kamloops, B.C.
The Tahltan First Nation man, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, is expected to arrive at the facility by Monday.
“It’s proper mental health care for Mr. Nehass that’s needed, not the criminalization of mental illness,” his lawyer, Anik Morrow, told reporters outside the Whitehorse courthouse.
But Nehass isn’t happy about the decision.
Appearing in court via video from Ontario in jeans, a grey sweater and black baseball cap, he expressed frustration that he is being sent to another hospital.
“I would like to go home now, not get re-committed,” he told the court.
“I need to go back to Whitehorse, Yukon; that is where I was born, that is where I was raised, that is where my family is.”
He noted that several of his family members have died during his time in custody.
And he said he wants his family to fund his travel home. Under court order, the Yukon government is responsible for his transport to B.C.
Morrow, however, said his family approves of the decision.
Nehass’ father and brother intend to move to the Kamloops area to support him.
“Everybody is in agreement that they would like to have their boy Michael back,” she said. “They all want treatment for him; they are all on the same page.”
The transfer was made possible by varying the court order that originally sent Nehass to Ontario.
Morrow explained it was the only remedy available after the Crown stayed criminal charges last Friday morning, leaving Nehass essentially stranded in the province.
And she was critical of how the case was handled.
Nehass was facing several charges, including assault with a weapon and forcible confinement related to the alleged assault of a woman at knife-point in Watson Lake in 2011.
Despite being incarcerated since turning himself into the RCMP, he has never been sentenced for the alleged crimes.
While Nehass had been found guilty by a judge and jury in May 2015, he was declared unfit for trial in January 2017. It was the first time in Canadian history that a person has been found unfit after he or she had already stood trial.
In February of this year, a mistrial was declared in the case.
The Crown, which had sought to have Nehass declared a dangerous offender, opted to retry the charges.
“The Crown is a minister of justice and they should care about the manner of their prosecution and who they’re prosecuting,” Morrow said, noting they have a duty to recognize mental illness and First Nation ancestry. “I didn’t see that here.”
Morrow also noted the lengthy court battle has interfered with Nehass’s ability to get well.
“He’s too focused on the judicial proceeding and he’s too focused on how his taking the medication may play to the other side,” she said.
“He’s too much operating on a defensive level.”
The case has gained national attention over concerns with the treatment of Indigenous and mentally ill people in the justice system and the use of segregation.
“Why is there an Indigenous person who is mentally ill and segregated?” Morrow questioned.
“How can we have these three priorities identified by the prime minister all rolled up into one case?”
Justice Scott Brooker has noted that segregation at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre (WCC) has contributed to the deterioration of Nehass’ health.
The WCC is designated as a schedule one hospital under the Criminal Code.
However, Patricia Ratel, the Yukon’s director of corrections, has testified that it does not have the resources to address mental health properly.
“You can’t simply put somebody in a jail and act like that person is in a jail and treat them like that person is in a jail and then call the place a hospital,” Morrow said.
The WCC maintains that it does not use solitary confinement, but employs segregation and separate confinement.
But Morrow said having an inmate isolated without meaningful contact is solitary confinement.
Nehass spent 22 to 23 hours a day in his cell.
When outside, he was kept in handcuffs, belly chains and shackles, even while he showered.
Morrow noted that Nehass’ metabolism also slowed down to the point where he was sleeping 14 or 15 hours a day.
“This is a situation that the entire country needs to deal with,” the lawyer said.
“We have to start looking at how we’re incarcerating individuals, what we’re trying to achieve when we incarcerate them,” she said.
She also highlighted the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 Calls to Action which have indicated a need for reforms in the criminal justice system.
Yukon Supreme Court Justice Ron Veale intends to write a memorandum on the case to shed light on many of the issues raised.
And the Yukon NDP has been calling for an independent audit into the use of segregation at the WCC and a public inquiry into the Nehass case.