6 moments that stood out during Wednesday's Saskatoon mayoral debate

Zubair Sheikh said downtown has "an ugly face," while Don Atchison said the city has gone "soft on crime."

Zubair Sheikh said downtown has 'an ugly face,' Don Atchison said the city has gone 'soft on crime'

The six men competing to be mayor of Saskatoon faced off in the first in-person debate to feature all candidates Wednesday afternoon. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

The six men competing to be mayor of Saskatoon faced off in the first in-person debate to feature all candidates Wednesday afternoon.

The Greater Chamber of Commerce hosted the event on a large stage at TCU Place. The moderator began by asking candidates questions supplied by chamber members. Then people were encouraged to text the moderator with rapid-fire questions for candidates.

The Lighthouse shelter for vulnerable people, downtown safety, the methods of the Saskatoon Police Service, and crime and its underlying socioeconomic roots featured heavily among the questions and answers. So did concerns about supporting struggling businesses at a time of economic uncertainty because of COVID-19.

Here are six individual moments that stood out during the debate, listed in the order they happened.

Cary Tarasoff cites 'an ever-escalating battle for our streets'

Cary Tarasoff was asked what he would do to change the perception that downtown Saskatoon is unsafe. 

Tarasoff said police officers have done what they can, including stepping up the number of patrols.

"But their presence sometimes causes the aggravation that we read about in the news as well," Tarasoff added, without elaborating. 

Tarasoff mentioned the police again when he was later asked what he would do to combat the comparatively higher rates of vandalism and loitering in the downtown and Riversdale neighbourhoods.

He said police face "an ever-escalating battle for our streets at times," but that he would "like to see a less-combative street unit."

"I really appreciate that the police have an integrated mental health group right now," he added, referring to the Police and Crisis Team (PACT). 

Tarasoff said programs for children could help keep youth out of gangs and also stressed the need for more infill housing. 

Zubair Sheikh says downtown Saskatoon has 'an ugly face'  

Zubair Sheikh also took the question about perceptions of downtown safety.

"Any downtown ... is the face of the city. Our downtown is having an ugly face at the moment," Sheikh said. "The people cannot go fearlessly ... If a young woman or tourist or people want to go downtown and have some kind of a good time ... they are scared."

Sheikh said the city needs to sit down with business owners and hear their concerns about The Lighthouse.

"Moving the Lighthouse could be one the good solutions, but it has to be broken down into different groups," he said, specifically citing mental health and drug addiction.

"We have to deal with this Lighthouse issue on a war footing and we need to deal with it ASAP."

Rob Norris doubles down on downtown library rhetoric 

Rob Norris has made his opposition to the current plan for a new $134-million downtown library a centrepiece of his campaign. Wednesday's event allowed him yet another opportunity to sound off on the topic.

He was asked if he would re-evaluate any large projects in light of the city's economic downturn. In answering, he used some of his strongest language yet against the library project.

"Come hell or high water, that project is not going to be determined by the library board, [which is] unaccountable and unelected," Norris said, referring to the nine-member Saskatoon Public Library board of trustees, which has shepherded the project for years.

"It is going to be determined by the city of Saskatoon, by council and mayor."

Norris said too little thought was given to combining the library with another attraction, such as a farmers market at River Landing.

Norris has said he would seek support among other elector councillors to reverse the decision to approve up to $67.5 million in borrowing on behalf of the SPL board. It's unclear if he can do that.

Mark Zielke advises police to avoid 'escalation-first policy'

Mark Zielke also took the question about vandalism and loitering in the downtown and Riversdale neighbourhoods.

Zielke said the Saskatoon Police Service needs to consider demographics and people's socioeconomic conditions. 

"When it comes to policing, do we have an escalation-first policy or do we have a different policy that actually meets people where they are?" he said. "We have many people in our community dealing with addiction, with mental health, with poverty and with homelessness.

"And if you have somebody in your family or a friend of yours who is having a mental breakdown, I suspect you do not want an escalation-first policy coming through the front door." 

Zielke — who is the only mayoral candidate who has spoken against increasing the police budget — added that the police force needs to look at how it hires officers.

"Are we looking for force and strength or looking for different attitudes, different backgrounds, different understandings of how to deal with the community?"

Don Atchison says Saskatoon has gone 'soft on crime' 

Don Atchison was asked what he would do in the face of rising gang activity in Saskatoon. Atchison said new recreational or community centres in some neighbourhoods "would be a sign that we truly care about them." 

Atchison said more officers are needed on the streets and strongly endorsed street checks. 

"Someone's walking down the street at three o'clock in the morning in a back alley [and] they've got a TV strapped to their back, I would expect any officer in our community to stop and ask if they need help to take that TV home."

Atchison also cited people who need medical help.

"Officers need to be able to reach out to talk to people throughout the entire community on an ongoing basis," he said. 

Atchison said the city "is going soft on crime" right now, citing gang units moving in from different areas. 

"We need to send a message that we are not going to have these gangs in our community anymore."

Charlie Clark says he's called for provincial funding of safe injection site

One of the debate's last questions went to Charlie Clarke and Norris, who were both asked if they would help Prairie Harm Reduction's safe consumption site in Saskatoon receive provincial funding (after the Saskatchewan government previously denied an operational funding request of $1.3 million).

Clark said the system meant to help people deal with addictions and drugs is failing those people and that innovative solutions are needed, such as partnerships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups. 

He also cited the safe consumption site.

"The city doesn't have direct jurisdiction over this [issue] but I know that, whatever happens, whether it succeeds or fails lands on our neighbourhoods," Clark said.  

Clark said he has spoken to provincial Health Minister Jim Reiter to tell him the Saskatchewan government needs to fund the site so that it can be run with more than just volunteers.

"I will continue to communicate and advocate to the provincial government that we get funding so that it can be done properly and we have less people shooting up in back lanes and backyards and in boarded up houses," Clark said.

"The easy answer is yes," Norris replied when asked the same question.

About the Author

Guy Quenneville

All-platform journalist for CBC Saskatoon

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