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Westfort meeting highlights tensions over crime, addictions

Around 80 people attended the meeting at the West Thunder Community Centre, which featured plenty of discussion about Spence Court shootout
Around 80 people attended a Westfort Ward meeting that centred around community safety issues on Tuesday. (Carl Langdon, TBT News)

THUNDER BAY — A public meeting in Westfort held in the wake of a high-profile shootout at an area apartment generated heated rhetoric from residents on issues of crime and addiction Tuesday.

Local leaders assembled to hear those concerns pledged to examine approaches like increased community policing, but largely painted the problem as one requiring increased provincial resources and federal attention to issues like bail reform.    

Around 80 people attended the meeting at the West Thunder Community Centre for the Westfort Ward meeting, while another 100 or so appeared to stream it live via Westfort Coun. Kristen Oliver’s Facebook page.

The meeting revolved largely around a May 2 daytime exchange of gunfire at the Spence Court apartment complex that saw over 20 rounds of ammunition fired wildly across the building’s parking lot.

Police have arrested three suspects in connection with the shooting, stating they believe it to be connected with the illicit drug trade.

The incident did not result in any injuries but nevertheless sparked widespread concern.

“What happened at the beginning of May was incredibly devastating,” Oliver said in opening Tuesday’s meeting. “I’m a mother, and I’m heartbroken that my children are growing up in a world that’s dealing with people in a social crisis — and that’s exactly what this is all related to.”

Oliver said the response needs to include both police work and an expansion of underfunded social and health services. 

“We’re lacking the resources around mental health facilities, substance addiction facilities, detox centres. These all play into what we’re seeing today,” she said.

Mayor Ken Boshcoff, Police Chief Darcy Fleury, city manager Norm Gale, and the half-dozen city councillors who sit on the board of the District of Thunder Bay Social Services Administration Board joined Oliver on Tuesday.

Coun. Brian Hamilton said the shooting represented an escalation of familiar problems seen widely across his own McKellar ward and the city as a whole.

“We’ve seen terrible things happening across this city, this region, and country,” he said. “But that was really new for Thunder Bay and that really shook us to our core, and that’s I think why we’re all here today.”

The conversation echoed concerns aired earlier this month in a McKellar ward meeting also attended by the new police chief.

Fleury, who was formally sworn in last week, will also hold two town hall forums on Wednesday and Thursday of this week.

On Tuesday, he said there could be a greater role for community policing in social housing properties like Spence Court and elsewhere, something DSSAB leaders have said they’re considering requesting.

Fleury added, however, that policing is only one tool in responding to community safety concerns.

“We can’t have the burden on police that everything that we do, every time we come across somebody who needs some sort of help, it becomes a justice or a peace issue,” he said.

“We can’t do that, [and] it doesn’t really do much service to the person that’s going through these situations. That’s something we’re going to be working on … really push hard to develop programs where we can make sure the person’s in the right stream and get them to the help they need.”

The police force has called on the province to support safe consumption sites and other addictions treatment services, and cautiously endorsed decriminalizing the simple possession of illicit drugs.

One resident said issues of crime and addiction in the neighbourhood had grown to a point where she no longer felt comfortable walking alone or letting her young children play in the back lane, citing abandoned needles.

She said her role in calling the police on a woman she believed to be involved in the Spence Court shooting had left her terrified of reprisals.

“I will call the police every single time, because I’m not going to be bullied into being scared,” she said.

Oliver called that sense of fear relatable.

“That’s why we’re all here, because we’re fearful over how this community has changed in a short period of time,” she said. “I [used to think] nothing of going to a friend’s house on a Friday night and walking home at one in the morning. It’s a block away, and now I won’t do that.”

One resident asked if social housing buildings like Spence Court could return to operating as seniors-only complexes, something Oliver called unlikely due to human rights legislation that bars age discrimination.

The same resident took issue with comments from DSSAB leaders suggesting the agency can do little more to tackle drug trafficking activity in its buildings.

“The DSSAB has the responsibility to have a safe, quiet building,” she said. “That’s just decency for our senior citizens. Enough of this not pointing fingers — they’ve got to get off their butts, and they have to say, this is our problem — we lost control of our buildings.”

Hamilton said the resident’s comments “hit home,” but pushed back on the contention social housing facilities are particularly hard-hit by trafficking, saying he sees similar issues in privately owned residences in his own ward.

“I don’t want to debate here, but you say it’s a DSSAB building issue. I just came from down on Court Street and Bay Street, and there’s ambulances there and all kinds of stuff,” he said.

“This is happening right across the city, and indeed, if you leave the city of Thunder Bay … this is happening right across Ontario and across the country.”

Like other local officials, Mayor Ken Boshcoff told attendees they should largely look to the province to address the issues surrounding the Spence Court shooting.

He suggested local services are struggling to keep up with the needs of a broad region with inadequate funding.

“When I was first on council, I asked one of the mayors of the surrounding municipalities, so what do you for your social problems? He said, ‘One-way bus ticket to Thunder Bay.’”

“I thought he was joking … Then I realized, we as a collecting spot are pretty much it. There are some [services in] Dryden, Red Lake, Fort Frances… but basically, it’s left to us here, on our tax base, to do a lot of it.”

“As a collecting spot for a huge area… people tend to come to Thunder Bay to end up, whether to socialize, to party, to get well, to go to the hospital, to visit their kids who are in schools.”

Oliver pointed to a proposal for a 40-bed addictions and mental health crisis centre that has struggled to attract provincial backing.

Insp. Derek West of the police service's community outreach branch said police and other first responders confront the lack of adequate services like that on a daily basis.

“The police [are] overwhelmed, EMS is overwhelmed,” he said. “They need that other area like a detox, connection-to-services model.”

Ian Kaufman

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