HALIFAX — After seven years and an access-to-information battle that has moved to the courts, the Nova Scotia government has released some details of the security fears staff identified after violence broke out at a provincial youth detention facility.
It took a challenge by The Canadian Press to obtain even the limited release of information after the government declared last year it would not follow the information and privacy commissioner’s recommendation to make the documents public.
The case extends back to the evening of Sept. 4, 2016, when a melee erupted at the youth detention facility in Waterville, N.S., after a young person asked to leave his cell. Seconds after permission was granted, a control system unlocked his cell and several others in the unit.
At that point, two other young men took advantage of the opening to leave their cells and they let out a fourth youth. The group of four then attacked staff in the area, seriously injuring three. Some staff suffered broken bones.
After the attacks, the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, which represents staff at the centre, submitted to the province a list of 14 concerns. The Department of Justice then struck a union-management review committee to assess the risks of violence or other hazards faced by youth workers, who oversee the detainees.
At the time, The Canadian Press requested information about safety concerns raised by youth detention staff, along with a review of potential risks and management responses. Nearly all details of the “potential hazards” originally listed in the fall 2016 review were blanked out in the government’s response several months afterward.
However, in a submission filed in response to a Canadian Press appeal before the Nova Scotia Supreme Court on June 29, the Justice Department released some of the redacted material.
For example, the review includes a section on “unit dynamics” between youths, and says there is a risk of a “criminal subculture” causing violence to spread. It called for a system to be created to review the suitability of mixing specific individuals “prior to placement or transfer to a unit.” A later trial heard the youths involved had recently been placed in the same unit due to staff shortages.
Released documents show that loose furniture was picked up and thrown at the youth workers during the melee. The youth workers identified loose furniture in the facility as a hazard, and called for it to be secured to walls and the ground.
In another problem area, the youth workers raise concerns about “young persons experiencing high degrees of stress due to long sentences.” One of the offenders involved had been sentenced to seven years for second-degree murder, including four years in custody, according to the 2017 trial. The review called for the switch to a more modernized online system to monitor and manage youth behaviour and said training would be required on the system.
The report also called for the facility’s team that responds to outbreaks of violence — known as the institution intervention group — to receive more gear, including pepper spray. Some portions of these recommendations remain blacked out.
Comments about the door-release system that allowed the youths’ escape are still blacked out, as are the followup actions.
In all these instances, management acknowledged the concerns and said the recommended changes would be implemented by early 2017 or “as soon as possible.” The Justice Department says in a recent email the changes were carried out.
The province’s Freedom of Information Act says the law’s purpose is to ensure that public bodies are fully accountable to the public. However, the delays in the Waterville release mean the Liberal government ministers responsible at the time are no longer in office.
In her most recent annual report, the province’s current information commissioner, Tricia Ralph, commented on the continued backlog of reviews. She said some languish up to four years because of staff shortages and a rising number of requests for review by applicants. Ralph ruled in February 2022 that the bulk of the information sought by The Canadian Press should be made public.
Both Ralph and her predecessor, Catherine Tully, have called on the government to reform the freedom of information legislation, including provisions that would give order-making powers to the commissioner’s office, putting the onus to appeal on the province when it disagrees with a review’s findings.
Premier Tim Houston promised during the 2021 election campaign to give the commissioner order-making powers, but last October he appeared to pull back from the pledge, saying he viewed the situation differently since becoming premier. The province announced last week an internal review of the legislation will be carried out by a group of civil servants, and potential changes will be presented to the legislature.
The appeal by The Canadian Press to obtain information that is still being withheld continues before the Nova Scotia Supreme Court, with a trial date currently set for late November.
Deborah Bayer, a Department of Justice spokeswoman, said in an email that at times information must be blacked out, as provided for in the freedom of information law, to take into account the potential risk to security at detention centres.
“Where there is a disagreement as to the interpretation of the Freedom of Information and Protection Act and the application of exemptions, the court is available to determine the matter,” she said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 2, 2023.