Thunder Bay

Ontario chief human rights commissioner wants 'meaningful conversations' around Kenora shelter

Ontario's chief human rights commissioner says she wants to see more discussion and collaboration in Kenora, Ont., around the operation of the local homeless shelter and the provision of other social services.

Renu Mandhane says combating addictions, homelessness needs to be more informed by users of the system

Renu Mandhane is the Ontario Human Rights Commission's chief commissioner. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

Ontario's chief human rights commissioner says she wants to see more discussion and collaboration in Kenora, Ont., around the operation of the local homeless shelter and the provision of other social services.

In a report issued Sept. 17, Renu Mandhane said that should include more consultation with people who use the facility, as well as local front-line workers and Indigenous leaders and service organizations.

"We felt like this was a bit of a powder keg situation," Mandhane said of what she and her staff observed when they visited the northwestern Ontario city, located about 500 kilometres west of Thunder Bay in September. "I think now we obviously will be following what happens with the shelter re-opening."

The shelter re-opened Sept. 26 after being closed for several weeks. The closure displaced dozens of people who rely on it for a warm place to sleep and eat.

Mandhane said the Kenora District Services Board (KDSB), which provides the funding for the shelter and the variety of other services it is to include, like mental health and addictions help, invited her and her staff to the city.

What the chief commissioner said she found was a lot of people trying to help but not necessarily working together.

"What we're trying to do is actually encourage ... people to take the temperature down a bit and to have more meaningful conversations that really educate the community about some of the issues facing the shelter users," she said.

Mandhane's report recommended that the KDSB meet with shelter users, "ensure robust communication" with the Ne-Chee Friendship Centre — the shelter operator — as well as other social service providers and host a community forum about the shelter to "dispel any possible misconceptions, answer any questions and seek the community's support."

The report also called on the services board to continue to hold public forums for all service providers "to share knowledge and information, both from western and Indigenous world views and perspectives."

"There really seemed to be almost these two silos and there wasn't a lot of direct communication," Mandhane told CBC's Superior Morning. "People often didn't know what was happening next."

The KDSB's communications officer said that officials aren't yet commenting on Mandhane's report but that a statement will be released on behalf of the board. The KDSB didn't give a timeline for when that will happen.

The report also called on the City of Kenora to "meet with and understand the diverse needs and perspectives of shelter users, homeless people and/or intravenous drug users and front-line services providers," as well as create a working group "to report on the lived experience of racism and discrimination in Kenora."

The city has made strides in some of those areas, said Adam Smith, the city's manager of development services, adding that "we look forward to continuing to ... build off of those efforts moving forward to ensure that Kenora is an inclusive type of community."

"I think in terms of engagement among our Indigenous partners, I think we've [made] some significant strides," he continued, pointing to cultural training undertaken by city staff and council, the raising of the Treaty 3 flag at city hall and a meeting of area mayors with Ogichidaa Francis Kavanaugh, the grand chief of the territorial organization. The meeting focused on social issues and "creating a solidified front in terms of advocating on these issues."

Mandhane's report also called on the provincial and federal governments to help with financial and technical support to deal with issues like homelessness, affordable housing and drug addiction, something Smith said he fully endorses.

Regional, municipal, social service and Indigenous stakeholders were tasked in the report with working collaboratively to create strategies around poverty reduction, affordable housing and harm reduction, as well as to start up an education campaign to "combat the stigma associated with homelessness and drug addiction."

Patti Fairfield, the executive director of the Ne-Chee Friendship Centre said her organization had been meeting every couple of weeks with the Kenora District Services Board, the OPP, city staff and Knox United Church since the shelter opened but "we needed to have more people at the table."

"I think it's just really important that those parties all have to be at the table and we all have to have the lines of communication open," she said, referring to organizations that provide services to shelter clients and adding that more recently, groups like the Canadian Mental Health Association, the Northwestern Health Unit and Changes Recovery Homes have joined the regular meetings.

Fairfield said she'd like to see memoranda of understanding drawn up with all groups and organizations involved with the shelter to lay out exactly who is responsible for what.

"People have to commit to what they say they're going to do."

"At the end of the day, it's all about the people," she added.

"We've made a commitment to these individuals that access the shelter and I just think it's really important that everybody who has stepped up to take part ... has to carry through with what they said they're going to do."

With files from Superior Morning