Thunder Bay

Thunder Bay still responding to river safety audit despite end of 'command centre' project, city says

An ambitious surveillance and public safety project in Thunder Bay, Ont., is no more but city officials say they continue to respond to recommendations in a report aimed at preventing further drownings in local rivers.

City applied to federal program for cameras, lights, along watercourses, application rejected in 2018

City officials in Thunder Bay, Ont., say they continue to respond to recommendations in a 2017 river safety audit, despite an ambitious surveillance project not going ahead. (Jody Porter/CBC)

An ambitious surveillance and public safety project in Thunder Bay, Ont., that would have seen cameras, more lights and even increased access to Wi-Fi along city watercourses is no more but city officials say they continue to respond to recommendations in a 2017 report aimed at preventing further drownings.

The river safety audit report, completed in 2017, was in response to one of the recommendations from the inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations students in Thunder Bay. Five of the young people from remote Indigenous communities, whose deaths the months-long inquest examined, were found dead in local waterways.

According to the city, there were 13 additional deaths in the city's rivers and watercourses since 2011.

Since the river audit report, the city "got busy," working on its recommendations, said Karen Lewis, Thunder Bay's director of corporate strategic services, adding that's already included bettering lighting near rivers, cleaning up graffiti and starting up an annual water gathering event for young people.

The river audit made 10 broad recommendations aimed at overall public safety, particularly near the water, but the city, on top of that, applied in 2018 to Infrastructure Canada's Smart Cities Challenge, seeking $10 million for a so-called public safety command centre project that would have installed even more lighting as well as cameras near the rivers, along with sensors and "smart poles," which not only provide light, but also an emergency call button and connectivity to a wireless network.

The city's proposal didn't make the cut — the city was notified in June, 2018 — and during 2019 municipal budget deliberations, councillors axed $150,000 for consultations and analysis that would have been necessary for the command centre project to go forward.
Karen Lewis is Thunder Bay's director of corporate strategic services. (Matt Prokopchuk / CBC)

That cut worried some on council, as well as advocates in the community, that the city was shirking its responsibilities in responding to the public safety aspects of the seven youth inquest recommendations aimed at city hall.

"That [funding] was in response to a recommendation and so ... for me, that's them refusing to acknowledge that recommendation," said Ardelle Sagutcheway, an advocate from Eabametoong First Nation, who was involved with the seven youth inquest.

Coun. Shelby Ch'ng, speaking to the cut during council budget talks, said "I do not believe this is a good idea."

Lewis said those consultations and analysis would have been necessary if the command centre project went ahead but, without support from senior levels of government, that's not possible.

"The writing was on the wall, we had exhausted every opportunity to look for infrastructure funding to support a larger camera project," Lewis said. "It simply wasn't there."

"With the federal application, they had concerns about whether surveillance was, in fact, the right way to go; was it just moving a problem?"

That doesn't mean the city has stopped work on its inquest recommendations, Lewis said, including implementing calls to action around river safety. She said that some aspects of the Smart Cities Challenge application, like the smart poles, can be pulled out and pursued individually.

"We will keep our eye out for opportunities," she said.