Northern News Services
Wednesday, August 1, 2007
YELLOWKNIFE - Sacred Fire Healing Camp was a refuge of last resort for Randy Leisk Jr.
"Last summer he went to a camp in Ndilo to talk with elders and seemed to do really well," his mother Darlene recalled last week, a few days after a memorial service for the 15-year-old.
Randy Jr. and Michael Luzny, 18, a designated supervisor at Sacred Fire, drowned July 5 after they abandoned a boat and attempted to swim back to the camp on an island in the North Arm of Great Slave Lake.
Randy Jr. was in and out of school and youth court, piling up breaches of probation and community service orders. He was also a familiar face among the youths who hang out on what Darlene Leisk calls "the Gaza Strip," a section of 50th Street notorious for drugs, drunks and casual vandalism.
In June, Randy Jr. added two more breaches: failing to complete community service work and failing to report to his youth worker. The judge tacked on another 25 hours of community service. Subject to the approval of a youth worker, the time could be served at the Sacred Fire Healing Camp operated at Old Fort Rae by the Nats'eju Dahk'e Association.
Permission from a youth worker was not obtained, a detail that Randy Jr.'s parents dismissed as a technicality.
"The words of the top of the form say 'probation order'," says Darlene. "When I pick up a book I assume that the words on the cover describe its contents."
Such interpretations of court documents are not uncommon, says Lydia Bardak, director of the John Howard Society, a non-profit advocacy group for offenders.
"Half the cases on the court docket deal with breaches of court orders," says Bardak, whose experience with young offenders in court is that "many have no idea what's happening to them."
Since the Youth Criminal Justice Act came into force in 2003, courts have been diverting young offenders away from jail, and into alternative justice programs that emphasize counselling, community service work and reparations to victims.
The website for NWT Justice boasts that in 2005-06, the number of diversions reached 214, an increase of 17 per cent over 2001-02 and seven per cent over the target for the community justice strategic plan. It also notes that 62 per cent of offenders served their sentences in the community - a decrease of four per cent, "which might reflect the response of the justice system to repeat offenders."
The problem, says Bardak, is that the territorial government does not provide sufficient resources and non-government organizations don't have the money for alternative programs that might keep young offenders in school and away from the influence of street culture.
"When it comes to what programs are available for young offenders, I don't know. There is no alternative schooling for kids who skip their way out of the regular education system; there is no addictions programs designed for youth," says Bardak, who pointed to the results of an informal survey of 150 youth in Yellowknife in 2004.
In answer to a question about what most contributed to youth crime, "they consistently answered 'nothing to do' and 'substance abuse'," says Bardak. She compares the decision to divert youth away from jail to a decision made 30 years ago to empty mental institutions without providing services for the former residents.
Darlene Leisk is bitter when she talks about her experience with the youth justice system.
"Kids walk out of court and into the drug trade on the strip. How else would a 15-year-old get the money to pay fines? " she says, and angrily dismissed the worth of community service orders that often translate into picking trash from the streets.
"Kids don't want to pick garbage."
Sacred Fire Healing Camp looked to the Leisks like a way to break the cycle. Their older son Matthew had spent some time helping Grant Blondin make repairs needed to open the camp to visitors. The Leisks were contemplating a move to Montreal and they thought a summer on an island in Great Slave Lake, away from the influence of the street, would've been good for Randy Jr.
Grant is the son of Be'sha Blondin, who George Pieper, a director and treasurer of Nats'eju Dahk'e Association, credits with the idea to establish a cultural camp at Old Fort Rae, on property owned by the North Slave Metis Alliance.
"Be'sha thought youth have a lot of trouble, and that it would be nice to have a place away from town, to get them in a natural setting to let them clear their heads and get some counselling," Pieper said. "Be'sha was putting a proposal together for departments of justice and health and social services."
Nats'eju Dahk'e was established in 2003 "as a charity to help people with emotional problems," says Pieper. Funded with grants from the city and territorial government, it has organized talking circles in communities across the territories where "people come with emotional problems, family problems and talk things out and get counselling."
Grant Blondin was grooming Michael Luzny to supervise the camp, schooling him for the past year in "boating, hunting, fishing, how to handle people, first aid - anything you would need as a supervisor," says Pieper. "He was coming along really good; he was probably ready."
Except for a burst water pipe, Pieper says the camp was ready to accept guests when the Blondins dropped off eight youths on the island and left Luzny in charge.
Luzny, Leisk and a third youth, Nazon Goulet, 19, took a boat to Behchoko. They ran into trouble on the return journey. Luzny and Leisk abandoned the boat. Volunteers recovered their bodies a week later. Goulet, who stayed with the boat, was the sole survivor.
The Leisks visited the camp last week, searching for their son's belongings, including a favorite Bob Marley shirt. They have heard conflicting stories attributed to Goulet and say they still have no clear picture of their son's final hours of life.
NWT Coroner Percy Kinney is continuing his investigation into the deaths and has not decided whether he will order an inquest.