Dealing With Addiction is the Best Alternative

In silence we hope... wreath at Thunder Bay City Hall Plaza
This scene at the corner of May and Victoria is not as rare as it should be in Thunder Bay.
This scene at the corner of May and Victoria is not as rare as it should be in Thunder Bay.

Addiction Fuels Many of the Social Problems Thunder Bay Faces

THUNDER BAY – Few might admit it, but Thunder Bay is facing a serious crisis. This week, delegates in Thunder Bay are at the AMO Meetings. Mayor Hobbs said he was putting the issue of alcohol and drug addiction on the top of the list for the city in its meetings with Provincial Officials. It has taken a long time, but finally the city is stepping up to start fully taking this issue to the province.

If you are willing to look at Thunder Bay only through rose-coloured glasses, likely this article is not for you. However if you are being realistic about what needs to be done, and how to change our future, perhaps this is a start.

Thunder Bay can not afford to ignore the situation we face. It has become one of the issues hammering our city. Addiction issues are leading to increased violence, domestic abuse, and are hammering Thunder Bay’s reputation for potential business investors. It is bigger than Marina Park, bigger than an Event Centre, and bigger than all the roadwork currently ongoing.

We have a choice, throw in the towel and surrender, or start working on real solutions that will put the city back on the trail to the kind of safe and friendly city we really are.

The provincial government is a part of the solution, as much as cuts in many areas have pushed the problems with drug and alcohol abuse in the North to the extremes we are now seeing. Superior EMS and Thunder Bay Fire Rescue, along with the Thunder Bay Police Service are responding to many, far too many calls that are related to persons who have consumed too much of some form of intoxicant.

If you walk the streets downtown in the Fort William Business District, or the Waterfront District you can see the impact of the problem in our city. Seeing people sitting across the street from Thunder Bay City Hall on the steps of the church at all hours who are openly drinking, and often intoxicated.

The signs of addiction are the signs of hopelessness and despair.

Thunder Bay can not afford to surrender.
Thunder Bay can not afford to surrender.

When you tour the area, you will see the depth of the problem, punctured hairspray bottles, empty mouthwash bottles, empty hand sanitizer containers, and needles. Smashed beer bottles are common, and so are the left over empty wine bottles and beer cans. The grim reality is that many of the assaults and other violence that happens as a result of addiction never result in action by police. Often the victims don’t come forward.

In silence we hope... wreath at Thunder Bay City Hall Plaza
In silence we hope… wreath at Thunder Bay City Hall Plaza

Getting the help that our city needs should not come as any form of a surprise to the provincial MPPs.

The overall cost to taxpayers is growing. Having EMS, Fire, Police and then a patient transported to the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre represents a major cost to civic and provincial coffers.

Dealing with the issues of poverty, homelessness, despair, and addiction would be far cheaper than dealing with the costs of ignoring the problems. There are several reputable studies that show housing the homeless and dealing with the issues of addiction is less costly than ignoring them. That alone should be the impetus for action.

The Thunder Bay Court House was seen by some as a solution for downtown Fort William
The Thunder Bay Court House was seen by some as a solution for downtown Fort William

Thunder Bay has looked to big solutions to some of the problems facing our community. The infrastructure dollars invested in the Provincial Court House were close, according to former Premier Dalton McGuinty about $500 million. Many thought the court house would be the start of a serious shift to success in the downtown Fort William Business District. It can be, but the bigger vision has to be a complete re-vitalization of the area.

The Court House isn’t open in the evenings. By 5:00PM the workers are gone, the reality is that there are local businesses who are not seeing a benefit from the new facility. The cafeteria in the court house has closed after only three months. Big mega-projects can help but the support around it has to make the entire area better.

Thunder Bay Police Service have stepped up their presence in the downtown. That helps solve the crimes that happen and in some cases likely is working to prevent them from happening. Few people commit a crime in front of a police officer.

Selecting the Right Solutions

Some in the downtown south point to Shelter House, licenced establishments, and even the BIA as problems. The fact is it is the addictions and the people not the places or things. Parts of the solution are bringing community members together, parts are in education, and a huge part is breaking the cycle of addiction, abuse and hopelessness.

For Thunder Bay perhaps the fact is instead of looking at problems, it is time to chart a way to solutions. The places are not the problems, the real problem is addiction.

Solving the Downtown Situation

Thunder Bay Police Service
Two Units of the Thunder Bay Police Service responded to Victoriaville

The real solutions for many of our issues are going to be found in revitalizing the small business sector, and in encouraging the area to become busier. That can mean combining retail, office/commercial with residential space. The real opportunity in the downtown Fort William and the Simpson Street areas are that property values are relatively low.

There needs to be leadership and partnerships formed with Thunder Bay and the northern communities. Our population is changing, and we are seeing a growing young Anishinabek dynamic in our city. Those partnerships should be with the Anishinabek leadership from Matawa, Robertson Superior, and Nishnawbe-Aski Nation and the individual communities.

These kinds of partnerships need to start at the root of the problem. They can start with the realization that addiction isn’t a crime it is a disease.

There needs to be places where intoxicated people can go, and safely sleep it off. Calgary started on this path thirty-three years ago at Alpha House. Now the facility has grown from humble roots to a non-profit charitable agency that provides safe and caring environments for individuals whose lives are affected by alcohol and other drug dependencies.

Established in 1981, Alpha House runs outreach programs, a shelter program, a detox program ,and a housing program with case management support at three apartment buildings; including one for Aboriginal People, one for chronically homeless men and women, and one for Canadian veterans. The volunteer program focus includes corporate and individual support.

Shelter House
Rotary Shelter House on George Street in Thunder Bay

Shelter House has a managed alcohol problem. It is a start. The real work will likely require efforts from the province and the federal government to help ensure that for many in the region, the cycle of addiction to drugs and alcohol is broken before it starts.

That isn’t as exciting as some of the major political announcements we have had. It is not as exciting as a ribbon cutting, or a grand opening of a building. It is an effort where the victories likely won’t be announced at press conferences, and often will take several years before they are realized.

That doesn’t mean those efforts should wait. Thunder Bay and Northwestern Ontario needs that action now. The benefits will be there for all our future generations.

James Murray

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