Public safety concerns over crime and substance use in Kenora, Ontario prompt an emergency city council meeting

Some people are calling for the city council of Kenora, Ontario. to declare a housing and mental health emergency in light of recent downtown safety concerns.

A last-minute council meeting was called for Thursday to address a recent flurry of public safety concerns, particularly in light of an alleged assault that was caught on camera.

The video, shared on social media, appears to show a person assaulting the owner of a local business on December 23. The Kenora Ontario Provincial Police have since arrested and charged a 29-year-old man with assault and mischief under $5,000.

Newly elected Kenora Mayor Andrew Poirier gave the floor to members of the public, who were each given five minutes to address their concerns. More than a dozen people took to the podium to speak, before council members met behind closed doors to discuss their next course of action.

The council gallery was full and one councilor noted that around 1,200 people logged on online.

« We have a lot of problems here. We have to [start] finding solutions, whether short, medium or long term. This is the start of the journey, this is the start of where we’re going to try to go as a community, » he said.

Kenora city council members speak after a nearly five-hour meeting about public concerns about downtown safety. (Sarah Law/CBC)

Staff are afraid to go to work

Dr. Marcia Little has owned a dental practice on Matheson Street for 11 years. She was the first to speak and shared her concerns for her patients and staff.

« We’ve had flat tires, vehicles broken into. Our parking lot is used as a needle dump and as a bathroom. Recently our window was smashed. A man threatened to kill one of our receptionists, » he said. said Little.

She said her staff deal with intoxicated and impaired people in their office every day, who often come « to threaten and scare our staff and our patients ».

« I understand the disease of drug and alcohol addiction. However, in these challenging times for business and staff, we need to find solutions to keep our businesses safe and open, » Little added.

A man said he and his wife moved to Kenora when she found a new job, but was afraid to go to work for fear of being harassed on the street. Other citizens have expressed concern about bringing their children downtown.

Rae Bath, who owns Tilley’s Pharmasave with her husband, suggested many businesses have been encouraged to lock down. They have banned some customers, but she said enforcing the ban is not easy and « locking doors cannot be an option for all businesses ».

Some businesses are considering closing their doors permanently, the council has heard.

Addressing Root Causes

Mary Alice Smith is President of Kenora Moving Forward, a community coalition formed two years ago to address homelessness, mental health, addiction, poverty and racism.

She said she saw posts on social media from people threatening to take matters into their own hands and calling for a return to under the stars tours, where people are driven to the outskirts of town and dumped there.

This kind of « vigilantism » is not acceptable, she said, any more than painting every homeless person with the same wide brush.

The District of Kenora, which encompasses approximately 40% 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 approximately 1% population, according to a 2018 housing survey. and homelessness report.

Smith said between 75 and 80 percent of Kenora’s homeless population is Anishinaabe or Métis.

« We also think racism is a key part of what’s going on here, » she said. “People talk about ‘making Kenora great again,’ and our question is, great for who? It’s never been 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, substance abuse and mental health issues.

Craig Lavand is from the Wauzhushk Onigum Nation, located just outside of Kenora. He said three years ago he was on the streets committing crimes and is still on the mend.

« It pains me to see how violent people get with these vulnerable people. [people]those people who are out there hurt and sad,” Lavand said.

He spoke of the trauma experienced by those living with homelessness and addiction, and his disappointment that they are faced with what he called a « fork mentality » rather than compassion.

For him, having a place to call home and people to talk to has been essential in his healing process.

« Close the liquor stores, stop giving out prescription drugs. Open treatment centers, open more beds. These people need housing, » Lavand said.

HIV/AIDS on the rise

Local physician Dr. Jonny Grek said HIV/AIDS is “endemic right now in Kenora,” with 15 new cases reported in the past nine months.

« There hasn’t been a single new diagnosis in eight years, » he said at the council meeting, adding that the rise in HIV/AIDS cases stems from needle sharing.

There has also been an increasing number of overdose deaths in the region.

In 2021, 31 people died of an opioid-related overdose in the North West Health Unit – an 82% increase from 2020 – according to Public Health Ontario’s Opioid Interactive Tool. On a per capita basis, the Northwestern Health Unit has the sixth highest opioid-related death rate of 36 health units in the province.

That’s why needle exchange programs, harm reduction strategies and a supervised consumption site are urgently needed, Grek said.

The North West 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 ended in the fall of 2022 and the results are expected to be published online once finalized.

Next steps

After the public portion of the emergency council meeting ended, councilors spent over 3.5 hours in a session closed to the public, before returning with three actions:

  • Hiring of a community safety and well-being coordinator.
  • Moving forward with the redevelopment of the Community Safety and Wellbeing Plan.
  • Receive a commitment from the Ontario Provincial Police to increase foot and vehicle patrols downtown.

Each councilor then shared statements reflecting the meeting.

« It takes time. It won’t happen overnight. The problems didn’t happen overnight and the solutions won’t happen overnight, » Poirier said.


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