Addiction and poverty becomes top issue for would-be mayors and councillors across northeastern Ontario
Different ideas being pitched, but many say municipal leaders need to focus on getting more provincial funding
Karrie Emms watched the barricades go up in downtown North Bay one day in December 2021.
She knew it was someone who was dead or dying, an unfortunately common sight in the downtown core in recent years.
She didn't know it was her 27-year-old nephew Nick.
"Two blocks away on the sidewalk, he was dying, I was watching, thinking it wouldn't be him," says Emms, who lives in downtown North Bay and co-owns the Gateway to the Arts gallery and workshop on Main Street.
Two people are charged with the murder of her nephew, who had struggled with addiction for years and was getting a "tough love" approach from his family, at Emms's suggestion.
She thought his death would make it hard to stay downtown and that the occasional grumbling she does about people on the street keeping customers away would become constant.
"Being downtown is definitely a challenge, but that's why I think we need to stay downtown," Emms said.
"If we don't stay here, if we don't do this and we don't strive to make a difference, then we're handing over downtown. We're turning our backs on the issues."
Poverty and addiction are issues that municipal politicians have been accused of turning their backs on for decades.
But in this municipal election campaign, candidates in most mayor and council races are at least paying lip service to helping those in need.
Matthew Shoemaker, a Sault Ste. Marie city councillor now one of five in the running to be the next mayor, says addiction is the top issue in this election.
He says the conversation over the years has really shifted to helping out those who are struggling, although he acknowledges that some voters are more focused on getting the downtown and other parts of the city "cleaned up."
"People want the city to be livable, to look good and one aspect of that is being sure that we can get help for the people who are frequenting areas of town we want to be vibrant," said Shoemaker.
He's proposing a day of action to help educate the Sault about the roots of poverty and addiction, as well as put in the capital funding for a safe injection site, which he says has been "downloaded" to cities by the province.
"I think there's a realization, broadly speaking, that there will need to be money put into this serious issue. Now, once you get into actually spending the money, I do think there will be comparisons: 'We could be spending this on X or Y or Z,'" Shoemaker said.
"If you can help the problem in any way, you're going to free up capacity in the rest of our services."
Connie Raynor-Elliott, who works with people on the streets of Sault Ste. Marie struggling with addiction as part of the group Save Our Young Adults From Prescription Drug Abuse, is skeptical of all the politicians suddenly talking about poverty now that there's an election.
"They're just saying what we want to hear. We need action," she said.
"[Those in need] have no faith. They just have no faith. And I don't blame them. Because you know what? I don't have a lot of faith."
Raynor-Elliott say the main way municipal leaders can help those in need is to lobby harder for funding from the provincial government.
Carol Kauppi, a social work professor and director of the Centre for Research in Social Justice and Policy at Laurentian University, is encouraged to hear municipal candidates talking about poverty, to a degree she's never seen before.
She sat on a Greater Sudbury city committee discussing options for the homeless encampment in Memorial Park before she quit in frustration last year when the city decided to remove people from the park.
"That's part of the movement to push people out and decrease the visibility, but it doesn't solve the problem," said Kauppi.
She feels the city doesn't do enough to pursue federal and provincial funding, especially programs aimed at the building of more affordable housing.
Sudbury homeless advocate Bob Johnston, who is now one of nine candidates running to be mayor of Greater Sudbury, says he would donate $50,000 from his salary in the next two years to set up a centre for helping and educating people living on the street.
"You can throw out a couple hundred thousand dollars, a million dollars, whatever, but if it's not going into the right direction, we're wasting our time and we're wasting our money and I can see why the community's fed up," said Johnston, who says he's surprised to hear his opponents suddenly talking about poverty.
"Where were you for the last eight years? Where were you? You've got all these great ideas and so on, why didn't I see you?"
As has been said many times during the opiod crisis, it isn't limited to the larger cities of northeastern Ontario.
Roger Sigouin, who has been mayor of Hearst for 21 years and is seeking another term, says in a town of 5,000 everyone knows who the drug dealers are and get frustrated when they seem to only get a "slap on the hand" from the justice system.
"I mean those dealers, they're doing a good business, riding with a new vehicle, better than mine, that's the way it is. After a while, you're getting pretty upset and it's the kids paying for that," said Sigouin, who is trying to land funding for a planned 40-unit social housing complex.
"When you're talking to a big contractor in town and he says 'Most of my employees are in drugs' And they don't have a choice to hire them, because they don't have any other employees."
"That's the way it is today, I guess."