Proposed addictions recovery centre becomes a hot election topic in St. James

Candidate Shawn Dobson has been a vocal critic of the land sale that would replace Vimy Arena with the Bruce Oake Recovery Centre, while candidates Scott Gillingham and Kurt Morton have both expressed support for the addictions treatment facility.

2 of 3 candidates in Winnipeg ward say they support the controversial Bruce Oake Recovery Centre

Residents get a glimpse at design renderings for the Bruce Oake Recovery Centre at an information session in August. The proposed addictions treatment centre has become an election issue in St. James. (Gary Soliak/CBC)

With a parent's patience and a teacher's deft hand, Erin Johnsrud steers her daughter toward her older brother, whose hands are deep in a box of party decorations. 

Thirty-six-year-old Johnsrud, a teacher at Winnipeg's Collège Sturgeon Heights Collegiate, is preparing a birthday party at Woodhaven Park Community Club. Tables are set, streamers lay ready to be hung, and through the window, an obstacle course awaits in the iceless hockey rink. 

It's a sentimental snapshot in the city's St. James electoral ward — one that some fear could soon become more dangerous with the proposed development of the divisive Bruce Oake Recovery Centre at 255 Hamilton Ave., the site of the long-closed Vimy Arena. 

The city approved the sale of the the site to the province, subject to zoning approval, in January. The province plans to lease it for $1 a year to the Bruce Oake Foundation for the addictions treatment facility.

It's become a controversial topic in St. James ahead of the Oct. 24 civic election, which will see three candidates, including two currently serving councillors, contend for the ward's council seat.

Teacher Erin Johnsrud says she feels safe in the area and supports the opening of an addiction treatment centre in St. James. (Kaelen Bell/CBC)

However, Johnsrud, who lives on Woodhaven Boulevard, says she has no qualms about the safety of her ward — or welcoming those seeking treatment. 

"I feel very safe here. It's not a concern of mine at all. To me, the people that make [St. James] unsafe are the ones that are struggling with addiction. If they're getting support, they're likely to be more safe," she said.

According to Winnipeg Police Service CrimeStat data (which can account only for crimes reported, not crimes committed), St. James has seen a rise in the year to date in commercial robberies (71 reported from January to September this year, a 97 per cent jump from 36 during the same period in 2017).

There's also been an increase in attempted car thefts (20 this year compared to 17 in 2017), and commercial break-ins (up 43 per cent this year, with 90 reports compared to 63 in 2017).

St. Charles Coun. Shawn Dobson, running in St. James this year, opposed the sale of Vimy Arena in January. The ward's other two candidates, current St. James-Brooklands-Weston Coun. Scott Gillingham and Kurt Morton, have said they support opening the centre in St. James. (Gary Soliak/CBC)

However, the number of reported sexual assaults has dropped (three in the year to date, compared to six in 2017), as have reported residential break-ins (down 19 per cent, with 88 reported this year compared to 108 from January to September 2017). Successful car thefts are also down (149 this year compared to 156 in 2017).

Whether or not the ward really is getting more dangerous, Winnipeg's anxieties about drug addiction, and addicts, seem to have centralized in St. James with the proposal for the addiction recovery centre.

'I'd be happy to live next to the rehab centre'

For people like Johnsrud and John Bagnas, the best way to assuage those worries is to work on helping those struggling with addiction. Bagnas, 29, says he is an enthusiastic supporter of the centre, claiming that he'd welcome those seeking treatment with open arms. 

"It's super safe here and, honestly, I'd be happy to live next to the rehab centre myself," he said.

Three candidates — including two current city councillors — are running for the St. James council seat in the 2018 civic election. (CBC)

Bagnas says he's disappointed by the anti-recovery centre rhetoric that he's seen in his neighbourhood, particularly that of current St. Charles Coun. Shawn Dobson. 

Due to electoral ward boundary changes, the St. Charles ward has been dissolved, leaving Dobson to run in the St. James ward against another incumbent councillor, Scott Gillingham, who currently represents St. James-Brooklands-Weston (along with the new boundaries, the ward's name has been shortened to St. James).

The two also face first-time candidate Kurt Morton in the race for the St. James council seat.

Dobson has been a vocal critic of the Vimy Arena land sale and the location for the treatment centre — he was one of the few city council members to vote against the sale back in January.

Gillingham and Morton have both expressed support for the recovery centre. 

Bagnas says that Dobson's resistance does not represent his voice as a constituent. 

"[Dobson] has said some pretty prejudicial stuff about people with addiction issues," he said.

In speaking to reporters, Dobson has made clear that he supports the centre but doesn't believe it should be in a residential area. He also has misgivings about what he calls the "backroom dealings" that led to the approval of the sale.

Some, like the grassroots protest group Friends of Sturgeon Creek (who were unavailable for comment) have said they are fighting the sale because it means the loss of what they consider essential community green space. Volunteers for the group are currently gathering signatures on a petition in protest of the Bruce Oake Foundation's application for rezoning. 

For now, the fight continues — for those struggling with addiction and those battling the proposed recovery centre.

Winnipeggers will vote for mayor and councillors in 15 city wards on Oct. 24, 2018. (CBC)

More CBC Manitoba election ward profiles:

​Journalism students from Red River College's creative communications program have prepared profiles of each city of Winnipeg ward ahead of the 2018 civic election for CBC Manitoba. Read all of our election 2018 coverage here


  • An earlier version of this story said the city sold the Vimy Arena site to the province in January. In fact, the city has approved the sale but it is subject to rezoning approval.
    Oct 03, 2018 1:25 PM CT