Seeking Solutions for Thunder Bay

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police on scene
Thunder Bay Police on Scene in Westfort

Thunder Bay – OPINION – It is so easy. Easy to point fingers of blame in our city, one sees it every day on social media, on comments on websites, and in conversations across our community.

If you were to ask the average person, pressing issues in Thunder Bay include crime, taxes, homelessness, and the cost of living. There are others, but those are the top four.

On social media there are pages set up to bring greater attention to those problems, and to blast away with posts about who is to blame. Of course blame is easy. People blame the Mayor, City Councillors, the Chief of Police, the Police Services Board, and even local media.

The fact of the matter is in all the blame game, there sure are not many solutions being offered to make our city a better place.

One of the complaints in our city is that there is a lot of effort put forward to get funding for new things. Yet there does not seem to be the same kind of effort toward maintaining those assets.

Dease Pool was allowed over a number of years to degrade to a point where the city saw the only solution as demolition.

At Centennial Park the playground, and frankly the Muskeg Express was allowed to degrade to a point of embarrassment and expensive repair. The playground was slated for replacement, but what was really needed was maintaining the existing one.

Kam River Park at the Fort William Waterfront saw the historic James Whalen fall in to major disrepair. So too the VIA rail train and the park benches at Kam River Park.

There is a theory which is well respected called “The Broken Window Theory”.

The broken windows theory states that any visible signs of crime and civil disorder, such as broken windows (hence, the name of the theory) vandalism, loitering, public drinking, jaywalking, and transportation fare evasion, create an urban environment that promotes even more crime and disorder (Wilson & Kelling, 1982).

When we let neighbourhoods and infrastructure run down, when ‘broken windows are not fixed’, the environment for problems grows.

Downtown business owners on both sides of Thunder Bay have been raising their concerns.

So efforts, that some see as not accomplishing much, like shopping carts for example, is a small part of the bigger needed solution.

Shopping carts
It is hard to understand why stores don’t seem all that interested in gathering up their shopping carts near their property

Litter around Thunder Bay is another sign that people are feeling that the city isn’t worth their efforts to make it better.

Part of the problem could be what can be said is a fixation of doing what other cities have done. Having a Tbay sign, like the Toronto sign is seen as a solution when really our main advantage is the natural beauty of the area.

The City of Toronto Marked COVID-19 Deaths with a memorial

It might sound strange  but what we have as our city’s major advantages are often things outside of the city.

On Youtube, people who post travel videos about top spots to visit usually talk about Kakabeka Falls, Silver Islet, Sleeping Giant Park, The Amethyst Mine… and then sometimes there is a brief mention of Persians.

There used to be lots of people flocking apparently to The Hoito, but when that landmark closed, and the building was sold that icon was lost, at least for now.

Ever notice no one raves about coming to Thunder Bay to go to the casino?

Even though the community auditorium is simply an amazing venue, you don’t see people coming to our city and raving about it online.

For all of the raves about Marina Park, looking at what people come to the city as tourists and then vlog about it really isn’t Marina Park. Yet how much energy has been put to revitalizing the area. Even at Marina Park, some of the walking paths are already starting to show age.

The local infrastructure, parks, venues are often more for the benefit of the citizens than for the visitor. But just too keep those venues going is taking enormous effort by local residents.

It took a massive effort by citizens in our city simply to maintain and keep the Centennial Conservatory.

One of the ways to build up our city, and keep our quality of life is simply to look at what we have, and to maintain it.

That is not just infrastructure, but historic relationships

The degree of racism and hate against Indigenous people in Thunder Bay is terrible.

It is almost as if far too many in our city have no idea of the relevance of the treaties, and even less of some of the worst parts of Canadian history and how that has seriously impacted Indigenous people.

You can see it almost daily. While there are committees and discussions, there isn’t honestly all that much real action.

Grassroots Indigenous people are often silenced out of the equation. People who speak out are often quieted down. It is a pattern for longer ongoing problems.

Even keeping an Indigenous Liaison or Manager appears hard to do. Right now the City of Thunder Bay is looking for a new manager for Indigenous Relations. While many city management positions are long term, that position seems to be one with constant turnover.

A symptom of a deeper problem? Hard to say, but it should be examined.

So when Thunder Bay is one of the top six places in Canada for human trafficking… has been the murder capital of Canada, and the Hate Crime Capital of Canada, there is not only a human cost to that hate and racism, but there is an economic cost.

It is rarely talked about, and until it is, change is more difficult.

Businesses that seek to open plants are looking at the quality of life that their employees and their families will have, and our city does not rank, sadly as a top destination for new businesses to locate.

That perhaps is a start at highlighting problems. The easy thing for anyone of us to do.

So to solve a problem, first the problem(s) have to be defined, and then specific solutions examined.

That is where the real work starts.

It might not be popular to say this but to blame our Mayor and our City Council for all the problems, well that is pretty simplistic. Who chose them? You did, either by voting for them, or by sitting home on Election Day.

While people are elected to lead, it is up the people to help direct where those leaders go. Voting and waiting for change isn’t a great path for democracy.

There are issues many see with some of the organizations and agencies in our city which are seemingly overwhelmed by those issues. In many cases that is a matter of the people who sit back and don’t get engaged.

Frustration and anger are factors as well as many simply feel that nothing is being done and that they can’t see solutions.

So here are some ideas:

  1. At the root cause of many of the problems in our city is addiction. Alcohol and drug addiction are an issue in our region. Yet there are few treatment facilities and fewer yet detox centres.

Thunder Bay could set a goal of becoming the premier destination for drug and alcohol addiction treatment.

Imagine if someone facing issues with addiction could find fast and effective treatment?

One of the biggest and fastest growing addictions over the past ten years has been the opioid crisis. Thunder Bay is seeing the impact of that crisis in the mounting number of overdoses, the growing crime problem, increases in drug trafficking as gangs of drug dealers from Southern Ontario have flooded our community and our region.

The growing opioid crisis was raised a long time ago, not only here in Thunder Bay, but across Canada.

The Market for Illegal Drugs

Prices for street drugs are higher in Thunder Bay than Toronto.

Simple economics has brought criminals to our city filling the need.

Not having solved the addiction problem means we are now dealing with all the very expensive ramifications.

Increased costs for police, increased costs for courts and jails, honestly none of which make our city a better place to live.

Reducing the Attraction of Illegal Drugs

The city could set its goal on making youth engaged in better opportunities so that the pitfalls of drug and alcohol use and abuse don’t become a factor in their futures.

So a focus on detox and treatment beds, getting back to the goals set only a few short years ago of having youth centres in the city, and having recreational activities for the youth.

Thunder Bay Police are, almost weekly making drug trafficking arrests. More often than not, the accused is simply released on bail, and again all too frequently simply gets right back to work selling drugs and dealing death.

A few weeks ago, waiting for a transit bus, a conversation between two people shared how the “trap house” moved every second day… what was being said was the drugs moved not the people. So if police were to make a drug raid, it was a game of roulette.

Many of those criminals from Southern Ontario are, once arrested, simply going back to business as usual once released. The number of people charged with a breach of conditions when re-arrested in our community is bringing respect for the entire criminal justice system into question.

The gangsters, who are often living unwanted in Thunder Bay Social Housing, where they have offered money, and often drugs to the residents are part of a bigger and lesser known problem in our city – Human trafficking.

Thunder Bay has issues with human trafficking. We are one of the top six places where people are trafficked out of the city, often as forced sex workers.

There are also instances where young girls are put on the streets to earn money to pay down drug debts. It is a massive issue that doesn’t get the coverage it should.

Homeless in Thunder Bay

2. Homelessness in Thunder Bay is an issue. It has been brought to the forefront with concerns over a homeless encampment at County Fair Mall. However the reality is there are people living in less visible encampments all over the city. They have been doing that for a long time.

During the winter, there are actually people who sleep at night in the donation boxes for some local charities.

There is a shortage of affordable housing in Thunder Bay.

There are moves afoot toward solutions. But those will take time.

Real estate prices in Thunder Bay while extremely affordable from a Toronto perspective are high here. Rents for one bedroom basement apartments are running at over $1000 per month and more.

What is needed is combined efforts.

Small homes have been talked about, and while COVID-19 has slowed that action, that offers some solutions.

This issue is one that is important. It should be atop the list of priorities for our city. As it has been said, “It takes a village to raise a child”. Here we need to house those children.

3. Our city in its heady times, was a secondary manufacturing centre. There were a generation ago sawmills, pulp and paper mills, lots of jobs at the grain elevators.

Now things are different.

The world isn’t using the same amount of newsprint it did only forty years ago. Paper has been in many ways replaced by digital screens. Smartphones, iPads and tablets and smart televisions are replaced print.

Manufacturing has lagged – Thunder Bay has a long history at what is now the Alstom plant in our city of making aircraft, Tree Farmers, street cars and train cars.

The next steps for leadership and gaining our manufacturing base is currently seen in growth in the mining sector.

That can work for a generation or maybe two. While at one point the ‘Ring of Fire’ was said to be a major job producer with the figure of up-to 50,000 jobs, the truth is it is far far less.

The goal for the city and frankly for the region, should be not just being a place where raw resources are taken from the land, but a place where processing and manufacturing of those resources is done.

Conclusions?

Thunder Bay has problems. As some of our community leaders have said, every community does.

The key to success in the future is working to solve those problems. That is a task for each one of us choosing to make this city our home.

Perhaps today, on Thanksgiving as families gather that could be the topic of discussion.

James Murray