While Hilary Earl was “pleasantly surprised” by the progressive attitude shown by the federal minister of border security and organized crime reduction in North Bay, she admits she still doesn’t feel any safer in the city.
Earl, one of about two dozen people attending a town hall at Nipissing University Friday to discuss community safety, said Bill Blair “recognizes that there are real problems . . . that the police are not going to resolve.”
Blair, she said, understands that poverty is at the core of the major problems facing communities across the problem, but “whether the feds will put the money where their mouth is remains to be seen.”
Blair and Nipissing-Timiskaming MP Anthony Rota hosted the town hall to share information on community safety issues Blair said are present in every community in the country, and to get input from local residents and stakeholders on issues facing North Bay in particular.
Earl, who lives in the downtown area, said she is seeing a changing community since she moved to the city in the early 2000s, and the changes she is seeing are “very troubling.
“I don’t feel safe in the community anymore,” she admitted, asking what the federal government is doing to try to address the primary cause for those changes – poverty.
“That’s what is at the heart of it,” Earl said. “You see it every day.”
North Bay, she said, is “on the brink of disaster” and needs help from senior levels of government to “help the poor get off the streets, out of tent cities.”
Blair said that while the federal government has made progress, saying it has helped 800,000 Canadians rise out of poverty, including 300,000 kids, more can be and has to be done.
He noted that for about 20 years, governments “got out of the business of building housing,” but the federal government has moved back into it in a big way, recognizing “government has got a role in getting housing built.”
Canada now has the lowest unemployment rate in the country’s history, and the lowest poverty rates ever.
The intention, he said, is to eliminate poverty across the country, while also making it easier to access necessary services, particularly mental health services.
But Nipissing First Nation Chief Scott McLeod noted that while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has spoken with great passion about solving the issues facing First Nations across the country, “the follow up is not of as much value.
“They don’t match the passion with the funds given,” he said, after pointing out that First Nations “lead in a lot of statistics,” unfortunately not those he wants to see.
Lack of proper housing, clean water and economic opportunities, he said, are the issues facing too many Indigenous communities.
“When I hear about the community of North Bay and other communities talk about the concerns they have – opioids, drug abuse, mental health issues – you can only imagine what is happening in our community.”
The problems facing non-native communities, he said, are “tenfold in my community.”
Indigenous policing is only one of the areas being severely underfunded, McLeod said, saying the systems and services in First Nations, while facing the greatest issues, are also the most underfunded.
“More and more is being added to the community without added funding,” he said.
Blair admitted there are “tremendous disparities in Indigenous communities,” with disproportionate levels of incarcerations and the impact of addictions.
And while there has been a substantial investment in Indigenous communities over the last four years, that can only begin to address the issues.
“First Nations policing has been grossly underfunded,” Blair said, saying members of the police services do not get the same level of training, equipment or facilities.
“It is something that has got to be fixed,” he said, admitting the changes are “only a start.”
Blair said the government is on the right path, but a solution won’t come overnight.
What is needed, he said, is engaging people in the community to held identify and address the challenges.
Blair said he has addressed a number of community forums on community safety over the years, and recognizes that the issues facing the North Bay area stretch right across the country.
Blair, who served as chief of the Toronto police for 10 years in a 39-year policing career, admits the problems facing Canada’s municipalities – particularly the opioid and methamphetamine crises – are not unique to any one community or any one area.
“Every community is struggling with opioids and methamphetamines,” he said, saying the solution is to reduce demand for the drugs.
“As long as there is a demand, there will be a supply,” he said, admitting treatment and rehabilitation “are grossly underserved in the country.”
He pointed out that there is an average nine-month wait time for rehabilitation services in the country, while on a recent visit to East Vancouver there were 12 rehab beds available for a drug-using population “in the tens of thousands.”
A national drug strategy is one of the things which needs to be implemented in the country, he said.
“It’s not just a Toronto problem.”