Hopes renewed for long-promised sobering centre in Thompson as Indigenous group to take over city's shelter
Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak will start operating city's 45-bed shelter later this year
There are hopes a long-promised sobering centre in northern Manitoba will finally become a reality, with an Indigenous advocacy organization set to take over the operations of the shelter that will host the facility.
Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak is scheduled to take over the operations of the 45-bed shelter in Thompson, Man., later this year, and will be tasked with opening up the first designated sobering centre in the city.
"I'm very hopeful. I'm very excited," said Kelvin Lynxleg, executive director of MKO, a non-profit advocacy organization that represents more than two dozen First Nations in northern Manitoba.
"I'm not walking in with rose-coloured glasses. I know that there's issues."
Each year, over 1,000 people are detained by RCMP in Thompson — a city of just over 13,000 people about 650 kilometres north of Winnipeg — under the Intoxicated Persons Detention Act, which allows police to detain someone whose intoxication makes them a danger to themselves or others.
A CBC investigation into deaths in police custody found dozens of instances across the country where people died in holding cells after being arrested for intoxication.
In many of those cases, steps meant to keep people safe were missed.
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A 2015 inquest into the death of Jeffrey Ray Mallet, who died in 2008 after being taken into custody for being drunk, called for a sobering centre in Thompson.
In 2020, the provincial government pledged $2.8 million for a sobering facility in the city, aiming to create a safe place for people to sober up for the night by late 2021.
That never materialized.
Over 20 organizations in Thompson, including Manitoba Justice, the Canadian Mental Health Association and RCMP were involved in the project.
However, internal debate sprung up about how the facility would look. Lynxleg says some objected to the idea of a sobering facility with rooms where people would be locked inside, similar to Winnipeg's Main Street Project.
"I understand where they're coming from," Lynxleg said. "We don't want to use it like a jail cell."
Some organizations — she wouldn't name which — felt locking people up isn't conducive to healing or reconciliation, said Lynxleg. She hopes MKO's involvement will change that impression.
"I think with having an Indigenous organization kind of leading the way and saying, 'You know what, it's OK' ... it's a little bit more easier for them to accept it."
Expanded shelter opened last fall
A newly expanded shelter in the city, the Thompson Healing Centre, opened in October 2022 — but without the sobering centre facility in place.
The shelter is open 24 hours a day and doesn't require users to be sober.
"It was opened maybe a little bit prematurely. We acknowledge that," said Thompson Mayor Colleen Smook. "But we had to have it all [opened] before the winter hit."
The shelter — which is the only one in Thompson — needed more capacity after the city's homeless population, which was around 80 to 100 people before the pandemic, soared to 200 to 300 since, Smook told CBC News.
Lynxleg said extensive renovations will need to be done before the shelter can accommodate a sobering centre, which will have to include rooms that can be locked for the safety of those detained.
Sam Prince, who lives at the shelter, has spent a couple of nights in jail cells after being picked up for being intoxicated.
"[Police] take your shoelaces off, take your clothes, and all you got is your T-shirt to warm up," he told CBC. "So you've got to huddle up with everyone else."
He said he'd rather go to the shelter, where he has a bed and a locker where he can keep his things.
Oversight change supported by city
The city's community wellness and public safety advisory group made the decision to transition oversight of the shelter to MKO last week.
For now, the Canadian Mental Health Association will continue to run the shelter with MKO, with an official transition slated for August.
Mitchelle Kelly, the executive director for CMHA Thompson said in a news release Wednesday that MKO's leadership is a positive development.
"An Indigenous-led organization is required and CMHA will remain a committed ally and work with MKO around other mental health and transitional housing supports," she said in the release.
The building, located at the former Polaris Centre at the University of the North, will still be owned by the city.
Officials felt the centre would be best served by an Indigenous organization, said city manager Anthony McInnis.
City and MKO staff were in the building Tuesday, reviewing what renovations are needed to get the sobering facility up and running.
Some of the funds earmarked for the project will be used by the city to hire a project co-ordinator to facilitate the renovations.
The $2.8 million in provincial funding remains in trust and won't be released until there's a firmer plan for the facility, said Smook.
Protective care facilities
Although it doesn't have a sobering facility, RCMP are still able to take people to the shelter — but only with their permission, said a government spokesperson.
Once the shelter has its sobering centre designation, police will be able to drop off people who might not be able to give that permission, but don't need to be detained in a jail cell.
Bobby Baker, the Prairie director of the National Police Federation, said his organization fully supports a designated sobering centre in Thompson.
Jamil Mahmood, executive director of Winnipeg's Main Street Project, which operates a protective care facility for intoxicated people, says there are benefits to sobering centres over jail cells.
Paramedics staff the protective care facility 24/7. Staff do checks every 15 minutes on people in the rooms, and they're woken up every hour to make sure they are OK.
Main Street is working on overhauling its entire space in the next year to a more blended model, with both locked-in rooms and congregate spaces.
"If you don't need to be in a locked room, what are those options for you?" Mahmood told CBC.
Limited addictions treatment
Though the city has a population of just over 13,000, Thompson's social services are used by closer to 30,000 when factoring in the outside communities for whom the city is a hub.
Addiction experts with the Northern Health Region, which includes Thompson, estimate almost one-third of the city's population struggles with addiction.
Treatment services for addictions are limited — about 100 people are typically waiting for in-patient treatment at Eaglewood Centre, a local addictions centre with the capacity to treat about 260 people each year.
"We're just touching the tip of the iceberg because there's so many people out there who have issues that aren't coming forward yet," said Gisele deMeulles, the centre's director.
"People are ending up [getting] sicker faster, addicted faster. And that's a challenge for us."
DeMeulles said there are complex reasons why addiction levels are so high — including generational trauma.
"So much grief in a lot of the people we serve — there's just layers of grief that they're dealing with," she said.
"Alcohol becomes a coping mechanism and it's cheap."