Thunder Bay·Audio

'Anti-racist grandmas' instead of security to keep the public safe? Thunder Bay group thinks it could work

"What if, instead of security guards at city hall, there was a team of compassionate and caring anti-racist grandmas present to care for those in need?" Activist group Not One More Death is posing this question and others to people in Thunder Bay, Ont., to seek alternatives to police and security responding to incidents in public spaces.

Not One More Death leads talks about safety in public places in northeastern Ontario city

A group of grandmothers is planning a demonstration, called Tea with Kokum, in front of Thunder Bay, Ont., city hall on Wednesday to reimagine community safety in public spaces. (Matt Prokopchuk/CBC)

"What if, instead of security guards at city hall, there was a team of compassionate and caring anti-racist grandmas present to care for those in need?"

Activist group Not One More Death is posing this question to the public in Thunder Bay, Ont., as it seeks alternatives to police and security responses in public spaces.

It's part of the conversation to reimagine community safety in the city, especially at city hall and bus terminals where people experiencing poverty, housing crises, or mental health or addictions problems often spend time, according to the organization's spokesperson Kate Rookes.

"The current paradigm is carceral. It's punishment, it's surveillance, it's criminalization of poverty, criminalization of addictions," Rookes told CBC News in an interview.

"We're saying that the paradigm shift needs to be the idea that these people are worth keeping alive … ultimately, it's changing from a model of punishment to care."

Not One More Death is developing a proposal that would see "care teams" of grandmothers, possibly working with social workers, to replace privately contracted security at the bus terminal in front of city hall to provide essentials to those in need. They could include food and water, basic first aid, personal protective equipment, or directing people to social services.

The teams would provide 24-hour service, and be paid and trained in de-escalation techniques, according to the draft proposal.

Rookes acknowledges the idea of a team of grandmothers patrolling city spaces may be hard to imagine, but says it shouldn't be.

"These grandmothers in a public space are capable of being respected authority figures and handling themselves, especially when they're coming from a place of care and a place of understanding," she said.

"It's not really that stark of a contrast because grandmothers care for youngsters and they care for people in need. That's who the people who are being harassed and surveilled at city hall ultimately are. They're people who need more care than they're receiving."

City contemplates $56M new police station

To expand the discussion about approaches to public safety, Not One More Death is hosting a public demonstration on Wednesday in front of city hall that's called Tea with Kokum. It will feature a number of local grandmothers having a conversation at a kitchen table with tea and snacks.

One of the speakers will be Ma-Nee Chacaby, a two-spirit First Nations elder and activist who says she's worried about the amount of money going toward police and security services in the city.

Ma-Nee Chacaby, a two-spirit First Nations elder and activist with Not One More Death in Thunder Bay, says more money needs to be redirected to community supports and services, and away from police and security agencies. (Jeff Walters/CBC)

The Thunder Bay Police Services Board recently recommended that the city construct a new, centralized police headquarters at an estimated cost of $56 million, citing roof leaks and limited space in the existing building. A final decision would have to be made by city council as part of municipal budget planning.

"They're going to spend a lot of money to build a fancy police building when they could be spending money on housing for people that don't have a place to live," said Chacaby.

She said the shelter system in Thunder Bay is not large enough to support everyone in need, and that led to premature deaths and a shelter crisis this past winter.

Thunder Bay administration open to new ideas

A representative with the municipality of Thunder Bay said the city is actively reviewing options to address gaps in security and supports at transit terminals.

"I've been considering … additional services and/or complementary services to current security service at city hall to help address the needs of our transit passengers, the operators and the needs of the vulnerable who may be attending city hall," said Kelly Robertson, general manager of community services.

While Robertson said she has not seen the proposal, it raises a number of questions, including the safety of grandmothers or anyone providing services at city hall. She said there have been incidents previously where transit passengers, operators and members of the public have experienced aggression outside city hall.

"Part of the reason today for having security on the site is to help ensure we create a safe environment for everybody."

But Robertson said the city is open to innovative solutions, giving the care bus as an example.

The care bus was a free transit service that operated in the spring and provided a safe, warm place as well as items like food, water, harm reduction supplies and personal protective equipment to those in need. It was originally proposed by Not One More Death as concerns grew about community members at risk of death because of limited or no access to warm spaces.

That is exactly the kind of openness the activist group is looking for once again, according to spokesperson Kate Rookes.

"We're putting the idea out there, and we hope that this idea grows and gains momentum, and eventually becomes its own thing."

Listen to the full story on CBC's Superior Morning here:

What is the role of grandmothers in community safety? Or maybe the more pressing question .. what could be their role? That's the question Thunder Bay-activist group Not One More Death is asking. The CBC's Logan Turner brings us that story. 6:43