Public safety concerns about crime, substance use in Kenora, Ont., prompt emergency city council meeting
Businesses say staff don't feel safe downtown, while advocates push for underlying issues to be addressed
Some people are calling for the city council in Kenora, Ont. to declare a housing and mental health emergency in light of recent concerns about downtown safety.
A last-minute council meeting was called on Thursday to address a recent onslaught of concerns about public safety, particularly in light of an alleged assault that was captured on video.
The video, shared on social media, appears to show a person assaulting the owner of a local business on December 23. The Kenora OPP have since arrested and charged a 29-year-old man with assault and mischief under $5,000.
Kenora's newly elected mayor, Andrew Poirier, opened the floor for comments from members of the public, who each had five minutes to address their concerns. More than a dozen people stepped up to the podium to speak, before council members went into closed session to discuss their next course of action.
The council gallery was full and one city councillor noted that about 1,200 people tuned in online.
"We have a lot of problems here. We need to [start] coming up with solutions, whether it's short term, medium term, long term. This is the start of the journey, this is the start of where we're going to try and go as a community," he said.
Staff scared to go to work
Dr. Marcia Little has owned a dental office on Matheson Street for 11 years. She was the first to speak and shared her concerns for her patients and staff.
"We've had tires slashed, vehicles broken into. Our parking lot is used as a needle dumping ground and as a bathroom. Recently, our window was broken. We had a man threaten to kill one of our receptionists," said Little.
She said her staff deal with intoxicated and impaired people at their office every day, who often come in "threatening and scaring our staff and patients."
"I empathize with the disease of drug and alcohol addiction. However, in these challenging times of business and staffing, we need to figure out solutions to keep our businesses safe and open," Little added.
One man said he and his wife moved to Kenora when she got a new job — but she has been scared to go to work out of fear of being harassed on the street. Other citizens shared concerns about bringing their children downtown.
Rae Bath, who owns Tilley's Pharmasave with her husband, suggested that many businesses have been encouraged to lock their doors. They have banned certain customers, but she said enforcing the ban isn't easy, and "locking doors can't be an option for all businesses."
Some businesses are considering shutting their doors for good, council heard.
Addressing the root causes
Mary Alice Smith is the chair of Kenora Moving Forward, a community coalition formed two years ago to address homelessness, mental health, addiction, poverty and racism.
She said she has seen social media posts from people threatening to take matters into their own hands and calling for a return of starlight tours, where people are driven to the edge of the city and abandoned there.
This kind of "vigilantism" is not acceptable, she said, nor is painting every homeless person with the same broad brush.
The District of Kenora, which encompasses roughly 40 per cent of Ontario's landmass and includes a number of municipalities and First Nations, has one of the highest rates of homelessness in the province, at about 1 per cent of the population, according to a 2018 housing and homelessness report.
Smith said that between 75 and 80 per cent of Kenora's homeless population is Anishinaabe or Métis.
"We also believe that racism is a key part of what's happening here," she said. "People talk about 'making Kenora great again,' and our question is, great for who? It was never great here for Indigenous people."
She encouraged the city to officially declare a housing and mental health emergency, an idea supported by a few others at the meeting.
Sharing lived experience
Some residents shared their own stories of coping with homelessness, addiction and mental health issues.
Craig Lavand is from Wauzhushk Onigum Nation, located right beside Kenora. He said three years ago, he was on the streets committing crimes, and is still on his journey of recovery.
"It hurts me to see how much people are getting violent with these vulnerable [people], these people that are out there hurting and sad," said Lavand.
He spoke of the trauma experienced by those living with homelessness and addiction, and his disappointment that they are being met with what he called "pitchfork mentality" rather than compassion.
For him, having a home and people he could talk to has been essential in his healing process.
"Close the liquor stores, stop giving out prescription drugs. Open up treatment centres, open up more beds. These people need homes," Lavand said.
HIV/AIDS on the rise
Local physician Dr. Jonny Grek said HIV/AIDS is "rampant right now in Kenora," with 15 new cases reported in the last nine months.
"There had not been a single new diagnosis in eight years," he said during the council meeting, adding the rise of HIV/AIDS cases is coming from people sharing needles.
There have also been a growing number of overdose deaths in the area.
In 2021, 31 people died from an opioid-related overdose across the Northwestern Health Unit – an 82 per cent increase compared to 2020 – according to Public Health Ontario's interactive opioid tool. On a per capita basis, the Northwestern Health Unit has the sixth highest opioid mortality rate out of 36 health units in the province.
That is why needle exchange programs, harm reduction strategies and a supervised consumption site is urgently needed, said Grek.
The Northwestern Health Unit completed a supervised consumption services feasibility study this year to assess the need for supervised consumption sites in Kenora, Dryden, Fort Frances and Sioux Lookout. The study finished up in the fall of 2022, and the results are expected to be published online once they are finalized.
Once the public portion of the emergency council meeting wrapped up, city councillors spent more than 3½ hours is a session closed to the public, before returning with three action items:
- Hiring a community safety and well-being co-ordinator.
- Moving forward with the redevelopment of the community safety and well-being plan.
- Receiving a commitment from the OPP for increased foot and car patrols downtown.
Each councillor then shared statements reflecting on the meeting.
"This takes time. This is not going to happen overnight. The issues didn't happen overnight and the solutions will not happen overnight," said Poirier.