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Bob Plecas: Most B.C. communities have no youth jail

Remember how we in the West were outraged and then laughed at Toronto when they called in the army to shovel snow? That’s how we look to the rest of the province with our bleating over the closure of the youth jail.

Remember how we in the West were outraged and then laughed at Toronto when they called in the army to shovel snow? That’s how we look to the rest of the province with our bleating over the closure of the youth jail.

What do these places have in common — Port Hardy, Port McNeil, Port Alice, Gold River, Campbell River, Tofino, Ucluelet and Port Alberni? None have youth jails in their communities.

I understand why local politicians complain. It is an old trick to attack another level of government to deflect criticism of your own inadequacies — when in doubt, blame Ottawa. It is, therefore, understandable why the politicians running the sewage project or the increasing costs for the Blue Bridge would try to turn public attention to anything other than their own ineptitude.

And no youth jail in these places or within a two-hour drive: Fort St. John, Dawson Creek, Prince Rupert, Terrace, Kitimat, Fort Nelson, Kitwanga, Skidegate and Bella Coola. After the Victoria closure there will remain two youth jails — Prince George and Burnaby.

It is interesting to note the complaints about the closure of the women’s portion of the youth jail arose only now when every self-styled Don Quixote interest group is piling on and giving the province a good kick — but two years after it closed.

And Williams Lake, Merritt, Lillooet, Kamloops, Kelowna, Vernon, Penticton, Princeton and Osoyoos also do not have a youth jail, and citizens there must travel to visit.

The critics imply the saving from closing an underutilized and almost vacant facility is not much — only $4.5 million per year. I think that is a lot of money.

One of the best premiers I worked for always taught us that the money we spent wasn’t ours, it was the public’s, and there were only two ways to find the money — raise taxes or spend less. He often preferred the latter. So do I.

The money involved — $4.5 million — is about the same amount of money the politicians behind the sewer project tried to bribe the people of Esquimalt with to locate the treatment plant in their municipality. Failed at that.

And some of these people, while critical of this closure, demand the province override Esquimalt’s decision. Sometimes I think I wake up in fantasy world.

Add Nelson, Castlegar, Cranbrook, Kimberley, Fernie, Golden, Salmon Arm, Revelstoke — no centre for youth detention. Just as there is no local cancer, children’s or women’s hospital, or G. F. Strong Rehabilitation Centre — some things need to be in big regional centres. Not a perfect world, but the vast majority of folks living beyond the south Island are realists and without Victoria’s enhanced sense of entitlement.

I remember, as deputy minister of children, visiting the youth detention centre in Victoria with the ombudsman. We had a tour and stopped for coffee with the inmates. A young woman brought us coffee and a plate of cookies. I passed — constant lifelong diet. The ombudsman accepted both and asked: “What are you in for?” The young woman replied: “Murder — I poisoned my mother.” That cookie disappeared into a pocket quicker than batting an eye.

But the sad lesson I discovered that day was how very few people came to visit their offspring in the jail, because, as sad as it is, these kids too often come from families where neglect is the order of the day — the effects of hereditary poverty, unbelievably high youth unemployment on reserves and, too often, substance and physical abuse. I’d rather see the $4.5 million spent on developing a strategy on poverty reduction.

Is the province callous? I think not. Instead, the locals are once again embarrassing themselves. The folks living outside our unique lower-Island paradise actually generate the wealth we enjoy spending down here in Regulation-by-the-Sea.

Here, there is no heavy industry, no major head offices, no provincial financial centre, but it’s still the most wonderful place to live.

I understand citizens’ responsibility to fight for their local community. But please, can’t we temper our sense of moral superiority with common sense?

If there is any good news in this, it’s that the folks who live up-country are so used to not paying attention to anything that happens in Victoria, they might have missed the comments by our chattering classes and saved us much deserved ridicule.


Bob Plecas was a senior civil servant in B.C. for more than 20 years, serving as deputy minister in 10 different portfolios.