‘Nothing short of dangerous’: Yukon First Nation calls for public inquiry into release of sex offender | CBC News

The Vuntut Gwitchin government says Yukon’s justice system has failed its citizens and put them at risk after the Yukon Territorial Court ordered a sex offender to be released on bail to Old Crow, Yukon.

The First Nation also wants a public inquiry into all the factors that led to the court’s decision to release Christopher Russel Schafer.

Schafer, 45, has a criminal history of violent sexual assaults and other assaults spanning more than 20 years, including a vicious attack in Old Crow in 1999. He also has recent charges of assault, forcible confinement and uttering threats in Whitehorse. He is currently still in custody in the Whitehorse Correctional Centre. 

On Friday, a Justice of the Peace agreed to a release plan for Schafer that would see him fly to his remote home community of Old Crow.

According to Vuntut Gwitchin Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm, the community was blindsided by that decision. He says the community had one day’s notice of Schafer’s return.

“I think like many others in our community, my voice escaped me for a minute,” Tizya-Tramm said of his reaction to the news of the court order.

“Soon after, my heart dropped because I knew there was going to be a lot of pain — pain for the family, pain across the community.”

A road in Old Crow, Yukon pictured on July 22, 2022. A sign reading “Welcome to Old Crow” attached to a log cabin is visible on the right, along with the community’s water treatment facility in the background. (Jackie Hong/CBC)

The small town of about 250 people has just two RCMP officers, no doctors and no mental health professionals.

Tizya-Tramm said the court order set the community on edge. The Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation quickly declared a state of emergency to make it illegal for Schafer to set foot on its lands.

The matter was back in court on Tuesday afternoon but left unresolved.

Crown lawyer William McDiarmid told court on Tuesday that the plan for Schafer’s release was an “ostensibly reasonable plan” as of last week. The First Nation’s emergency order changed that, McDiarmid said.

The Crown argued Tuesday that Schafer should now remain in jail lest he violate either his release plan — which requires him to live at an address in Old Crow — or the First Nation’s order banning him from the community. 

McDiarmid and defence lawyer Nora Mooney said discussions were underway to figure out an alternate release plan. 

Yukon Territorial Court Chief Judge Michael Cozens, before setting Schafer’s next court date for Wednesday, said there was “a lot of misinformation out there” about the situation and noted Schafer, as of Friday, hadn’t been under any court orders barring him from returning to Old Crow.

‘Deep insensitivity’ 

Speaking to media after Tuesday’s court proceedings in Whitehorse, Tizya-Tramm said his community is simply not ready for Schafer to be “launched” into their midst. He blasted the justice system’s “deep insensitivity” for making such a decision without informing or involving the First Nation.

“This is nothing short of dangerous,” Tizya-Tramm said, flanked by Kwanlin Dün First Nation Chief Doris Bill.

“This flies in the face of national inquiries into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.”

Tizya-Tramm said the Vuntut Gwitchin made its position known a year ago that people with a criminal history like Schafer’s should not be returned to the community. He said the First Nation had been working with community members, including Schafer’s family, to develop a reintegration plan for Schafer.

Last week’s release order ignored all of that, Tizya-Tramm said.

“The community is open to having Mr. Schafer, but there has to be a process,” he said.

Searching for accountability

Tizya-Tramm also sent a letter to federal Justice Minister David Lametti on Tuesday, seeking “accountability from those responsible for the ongoing colonial violence against women and girls within Canadian society including as it continues to be perpetuated by the Canadian legal system.”

The letter lists a number of demands to “meaningfully redress the harm and trauma that has been inflicted by the release order,” including a public apology to Old Crow and the Vuntut Gwitchin citizens.

It also says a public inquiry is needed, to determine the “direct and systemic factors” that led to the release order, and calls for counselling services and other wellness supports for any Vuntut Gwitchin citizens affected by the release order.

Bonnie Bingham, a councillor with the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, said Old Crow still hasn’t recovered from the damage Schafer has done in the past.

“There is still unresolved past trauma from the actions of this particular man, and there hasn’t been enough work to address and heal the community,” she said.

‘Scrambling to find supports’

The emergency measure, which also bans anyone from helping Schafer to stay on Vuntut Gwitchin lands, brings a penalty of up to six months in jail for those who violate it.

Tizya-Tramm said his concern isn’t just for his community — it’s for Schafer as well.

“To just have no reintegration, and to suddenly just hurl this individual into the middle of a community … is not conducive to reintegration,” he said.

“It’s not OK in just about every way you look at it, and now I find myself scrambling to find supports for Mr. Schafer, as … he very well may be homeless.”

Tizya-Tramm said the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation has in the past attempted to reintegrate Schafer into Old Crow. In July and August of 2021, the First Nation let the community know Schafer was due to be released, he said, and had Schafer do a local radio show.

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