Sobering centre in Thompson, Man., will open in former University College of the North buildings

A long-promised sobering centre for publicly intoxicated people in the northern Manitoba city of Thompson officially has a home.

Province has committed $2.8M to construction, operation of centre

Yellowknife's sobering centre opened in 2018 and takes in thousands of people a year who are intoxicated, keeping them out of jail cells. (Walter Strong/CBC)

A long-promised sobering centre for publicly intoxicated people in the northern Manitoba city of Thompson officially has a home.

On Monday, the provincial government announced that the former Polaris Centre at the University College of the North would be converted into a 24/7 space for people recovering from the effects of drugs and alcohol who are detained by police.

The sobering centre "is more appropriate than sending someone to a police holding cell, it is more appropriate for the utilization of our health-care system than sending them to the hospital, and it is more client-centred," said Justice Minister Cameron Friesen during a news conference.

"It avoids a criminal record, so it is good on many levels," he said.

Thompson — a city of 13,000 people about 653 kilometres north of Winnipeg — has spent years detaining intoxicated people in jail because there was nowhere else to put them. For the last decade, local politicians have asked for a place where police and community groups could drop off an intoxicated person overnight instead of sending them to the RCMP detachment.

There were more than 2,400 detentions under the Intoxicated Persons Detention Act in 2020 and over 1,100 so far in 2021, according to a provincial government news release.

Earlier this year, Cliff Cullen, who was justice minister at the time, said the provincial government was giving Thompson $2.8 million for the construction and operation of its centre.

Thompson Mayor Colleen Smook praised the province for providing the funding and the buildings for the facility.

"It's a great use of the materials that we already have, and the $2.8 million to renovate and ongoing costs is just such a commitment to all of the north and something that we will strive to work very hard to make it work."

A 2015 inquest called for a sobering centre in Thompson after looking into the death of Jeffrey Ray Mallet, who died in 2008 after being taken into custody for being drunk. 

It is believed he was dead for up to 10 hours before RCMP officers discovered his body.

A CBC investigation found that people in northern Manitoba are detained by police six times more than those in Winnipeg when it comes to public intoxication, and more than half of those detained in the north end up in the Thompson RCMP detachment.

Celine Samuel, 44, died last February hours after being picked up on suspicion of being intoxicated. Genesta Garson, then 19 years old, was knocked unconscious by a community safety officer in 2018.

The centre would operate similarly to Main Street Project's protective unit, which has been around since 1988 and takes in over 11,000 people a year. Yellowknife, N.W.T., has a similar centre in its downtown core, which opened in 2018 and has more than 8,000 visits each year. 

The province has not said when the new sobering centre will open. The Polaris Centre consists of three buildings on more than four acres of land, totaling 78,617 square feet of floor area. 

Smook said the buildings are in good condition and doesn't expect major delays in getting the centre open.

In the meantime, an interim centre will open at the same site sometime in late fall or early winter, the province said.


Cameron MacLean is a journalist for CBC Manitoba living in Winnipeg, where he was born and raised. He has more than a decade of experience reporting in the city and across Manitoba, covering a wide range of topics, including courts, politics, housing, arts, health and breaking news. Email story tips to