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Kenora shelter closure puts spotlight on drugs and crime

Treaty No. 3 grand chief calls on area leadership to work together to tackle the growing problem facing the Northwestern Ontario community.

KENORA, Ont. – Treaty No. 3’s grand chief is calling on leaders from area First Nations and the City of Kenora to address the issues facing the community in the wake of news a newly opened homeless shelter will be temporarily closed.

On Wednesday Conservative MPP Greg Rickford and officials with the Kenora District Services Board held court at a town-hall meeting that addressed the issues facing the shelter, which opened in March and will shutter its doors on Aug. 12 after criminal elements descended on the $1.1-million facility, bringing with them illicit drugs and accusations of human trafficking.

Ogichidaa Francis Kavanaugh said the closure of the Knox United Church Shelter is deeply troubling for a growing homeless population with nowhere safe to turn once the lights are turned off.

“There is a need to share ideas, break down misconceptions and collectively problem solve,” said Ogichidaa Kavanaugh, in a release issued on Thursday.

“There is an urgent need to convene an emergency meeting of Treaty No. 3 leadership and our municipal mayors as I believe we are facing a social emergency of epidemic proportions.”

Rickford, who was on hand to open the shelter earlier this year, defended the decision.

“We want our city back and we don’t feel like we have control over it and we don’t feel like some of the services that are being offered are living up to their mark,” Rickford said.

“Families are afraid to come into the downtown core. We have known activities. Businesses are suffering significantly and tourists are coming into my office complaining about safety issues and the overall, in some specific areas, dangerous elements that they see and experience. Somebody has to take some steps.”

Rickford said the temporary closure is a reasonable response, as service providers are unable to fully deal with the social problems, including the growing presence of drugs like crystal meth, that have filtered into the shelter.

He added many legitimate users are afraid to go to the facility.

“It has not lived up to its billing. That something we see and feel every day,” Rickford said.

Hence the decision to close for up to 45 days, he added.

“It might be longer, if the community can’t be persuaded that this is going to do what it was intended to do. That said, we listened to public health officials and public safety officials, who encouraged us to give them a bit of a runway, a couple of weeks before it was closed.

Kenora Mayor Dan Reynard said there is a need to get community input and a need to dispel misinformation floating around the city.

Reynard added he thinks the dual sessions helped ease the minds of many in the community.

“It doesn’t ease the fears totally, but at least they understand these are the issues being faced, these are the hurdles that certain people have to overcome in order to move to those next steps. Also, it’s not that nothing’s been going on in the community,” Reynard said. “There are a lot of groups that are working together.”

The mayor said housing was the number one issue dating back to the last municipal election, and on that front, nothing has changed.

“That drives it. If people don’t have a place to live and call home, it creates issues right away. Let’s be honest. We had some buildings downtown that, for lack of a better word, were slum residences. With the burning of those, it forced a lot of individuals that were out-of-sight, out-of-mind ... but now they’ve been pushed out so they’re front and centre,” Reynard said.

Ogichidaa Kavanaugh says First Nation leaders have been trying to tackle addiction issues within area communities, adding the Ne-Chee Friendship Centre leadership deserved more than two hours notice before the shelter shutdown went public.

We share the land that we all call home and we must learn to work together for a common goal,” said Ogichidaa Kavanaugh. “Both municipal and First Nations leaders realize that an ongoing, constructive relationship could avoid potential disputes in the future and foster a constructive working relationship on a variety of mutual concerns in a region shared by all,” he said.

KDSB chief administrative officer Henry Wall said the situation offers up a chance to "rip off the Band-Aid" and find a solution as a community. 

"We've had a 40 per cent increase in 911 calls just for the City of Kenora alone since last year. It is significant. It is unsustainable and a sign that something needs to be done," he said, adding it's a chance to shed some of the stigma surrounding addiction, mental health and homelessness. 

"We need to have this community understand what these challenges are. I want to make this very clear. We're not just walking away from (the shelter). This is a temporary halt and we'll be back at this. The service hub will reopen." 

With files from Thunder Bay Television's Adam Riley

Leith Dunick

About the Author: Leith Dunick

A proud Nova Scotian who has called Thunder Bay home since 2002, Leith has been the editor of Thunder Bay Source for 17 years and has served a similar role with since 2009. Twitter: @LeithDunick
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