Concerned Kenora residents filled the chambers of City Hall today as Mayor Andrew Poirier and Council members held an emergency meeting to try to find solutions to safety concerns in Kenora’s downtown core.

The meeting came about as at least five local businesses have been the subject of mischief, crime or harassment this month, with multiple employees being the victim of assaults.

Now, City Councillors say they will be discussing a variety of solutions to present to the public going forward – after hearing from members of the public at City Hall earlier today.

Mayor Andrew Poirier, with the OPP’s Detachment Commander Jeff Duggan in attendance, explained the meeting was the ‘start of the journey’ for Kenora and its new batch of Councillors, as many ran on a platform of cleaning up Kenora’s safety concerns downtown.

“What we’re looking for are solutions to problems in the community,” said Poirier. “I want to thank everyone for coming out. We have a lot of problems here. This is the start of the journey, the start of where we’re going to try to go as a community.”

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After the Mayor’s comments, Councillors opened the floor for concerned residents who wanted to share their experiences or their solutions with the public in an informal process, which as Poirier and others noted, hasn’t happened in years in the community.

Dr. Marcia Little, owner of Kenora Dental Professionals Clinic on Matheson Street, started things off by saying she has seen an increase in safety concerns around her building, including vehicles being broken into, tires being slashed, and employees being threatened with violence. As a result, she’s had to lock her business’ doors more often.

Rae Bath, owner of Tilley’s Pharmasave, notes that her business struggles with locking the doors for the public, and stressed they have difficulties enforcing a ban of people from their storefront – which the OPP could assist with.

Newcomer to Kenora, Martin Cumin, says he moved from southern Ontario for work after hearing many good things about Kenora. But about 16 months later, his wife is afraid to go into her office alone after it was severely vandalized this year. He says the OPP should be using ‘tough love’, noting Kenora pays some of the highest costs per household across the province.

A second newcomer to Kenora, Steven McDonald, shared that he’s seen Kenora as a very welcoming community so far, but called on business owners to use de-escalation methods whenever possible to avoid violence.

Throughout the hour-long emotional meeting, owner of Kenora’s Lil’ Caesers, Scott Cook, shared one of the more difficult experiences of the day. He says he needs to work open to close each day, as his former staff did not feel safe at work after multiple threats of violence against them.

“They are trying to kill us daily. We are fighting a losing battle. I don’t know what to do anymore. I worked 30 years on a truck to come here. Kenora’s everything to me. My staff don’t want to come in. Nobody wants to come there. Nobody wants to work there. They are not safe. I’ve phoned the OPP. No one ever showed up. My dream was to live here.”

He also warned of shoplifting and a lack of support from the Kenora OPP, and says it could all lead to him closing up shop in the community.

Although she says she has noticed a change in their clientele, Mary Bawden of St. Albans Cathedral Parish fought against the notion of ‘it’s us against them’ and its associated mentality, as we as a community should be facing these issues together.

“It’s about us, not them,” she said. “A few of us have some very serious problems that involve mental health and addictions. Some of us, don’t have anywhere to live. Some of us have pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps and are trying to do better in our own lives. Some of us, have been really fortunate to be able to help other people. Providing food. Being with people. We need to think about how we can help too. It’s about us.”

Owner of Gropp’s Grab and Go, Chad Gropp, explains it’s been difficult on him and his business but the community needs to work together to get through this difficult time.

“I’ve lost staff. I’ve lost food trucks because of it. I’m maybe looking at downsizing again, and losing more staff. Something has to change. Things have to be fixed.”

“I’m trying to do my best to help those who need the help. We can put the blame on whoever, but we should all look at chipping in to help out. I’m willing to help out, because everyone needs to succeed. I’d like to ask anyone who can help, to help. Lend a hand. Help feed them. Help talk to them. Just help out. We all need to do our part. I want to see our town change, and it has to change for the better,” he adds. 

President of the Kenora Chamber of Commerce, Andy Scribilo, first thanked Council members for hosting the meeting – before explaining that the Chamber is taking a closer look at a downtown safety program to help business owners and their employees.

“We are a community in crisis right now. The Chamber has had a safety program for over four years now. It didn’t go very far. We didn’t set direction. There were issues with it. We had members dropping out, and we didn’t take it seriously,” said Scribilo.

“In speaking to the councillors, Graham [Chaze] specifically, I know the city is looking at doing something and we know they have to. It has to get done, or we’re in worse times ahead,” he added.

Kenora Moving Forward had a number of members speak at the meeting. Chair of the advocacy group, Mary Alice Smith, shared concerns about the safety of Kenora’s homeless population, which she estimates to be around 150, due to the rise of talk of vigilantism and starlight tours, the act of police dragging someone to the edge of town and leaving them stranded, online.

Smith later shared her concerns about multiple events downtown being linked together to ‘create a crisis’, noting Kenora’s actual crisis is a lack of housing and a lack of mental health supports. She stressed the issues we’re seeing are ‘happening everywhere, not just Kenora.’

Craig Lavand of Wauzhushk Onigum also spoke about a lack of supports in the Kenora community. He explained that when he reached out for help in a time of need, he had to receive services in Winnipeg due to a lack of available options in the area, and says we desperately need treatment centres and additional supportive housing units for those in need.

“I grew up on these streets,” says Lerand. “Just 3 years ago I was committing crimes and loitering just like everyone else. It hurts me to see how much people are getting violent with these people who are out there hurting with addictions and with trauma. It hurts me to see people with that mentality, opposed to helping heal them.

“It’s possible to change. I’m still healing. I’m still taking time. But it really does hurt me to see the community talk like that, with the pitchfork mentality. It sets us back 100 years. This town is built on violence. We need to move forward. People are going to be hurt. We really do need to come up with solutions. We need to do things now,” he adds.

Jay Barnard, also known as ‘Chef Recovery’ and the former owner of Freshwater Cuisine – which unfortunately was shut down during COVID-19 – shared a similar story of rehabilitation. He says when he needed help in 2008, there were no services available in Kenora – an issue he says is still present today.

“The issue really isn’t the drugs or alcohol. It’s the trauma, and people not getting the help that they need. We need programming in town. We need it from a lived experience side of things, to get to the level that they’re at. We’re losing people at a rapid pace. We have to be open to new things. People at 13 or 14 getting addicted to meth and losing their lives is very, very sad.”

Community Legal Worker at the Northwest Legal Clinic and member of Kenora Moving Forward, Meg Illman-White, agreed that Kenora has an ongoing drug crisis, noting the community still needs more supports for the homeless population.

Midway through the meeting, Peter Kirby stood up and asked if anyone from the Kenora Chiefs Advisory, WNHAC, Canadian Mental Health Association or the Northwestern Health Unit was in attendance. When no one answered, he stressed that those agencies need to be at the table.

Kirby also suggested opening the washrooms of the Thistle Pavilion 24/7 throughout the winter to give those in need a place to use the washroom, and foot patrols with social service agencies could be deployed in the area to reach out to struggling community members.

Senior Director of Mental Health and Addictions at the Lake of the Woods District Hospital, Denise Forsyth, agreed that access to public washrooms is huge for many of our community members.

She adds that the All Nations Health Partners’ has a mental health outreach group with many initiatives underway, but more work needs to be done as a community. She also adds that many agencies, including the MorningStar Detox Centre, are continuing to struggle to find staff.

Forsyth explains that mobile outreach groups and a food security committee with the Makwa Patrol have been making a difference in the community, and the hospital has plans for a public washroom, showering and laundry space in the future – to help address infectious disease concerns.

Physician Johnny Grek, also touched on a number of public health concerns during the meeting. Of note, he says Kenora is seeing increasing rates of HIV and Aids, with 15 cases in the last 9 months in Kenora’s transient population. Before this, Kenora hadn’t seen a case in over 8 years.

Grek explains that due to a variety of factors, residents in need downtown have poor health statuses, and harm reduction and education tools are the best way to prevent drug and public health concerns. He adds that a safe supply of opiates and a safe consumption site could be huge for the area as well.  

Elauna Boutwell, a staff member of the community warming space hosted by Kenora Moving Forward, shared that she and coworkers have seen lots of positive progress for many in-need individuals in Kenora, with the support of community agencies like the Makwa Patrol. She says those relationships will be instrumental for moving through this crisis.

Poirier notes council will be taking the public’s thoughts and ideas to discuss them during a Closed Session of the meeting, before councillors plan to readdress the public later today. Stay tuned for further coverage on Q104 and KenoraOnline.

“This is the start. We all have to come together to come up with solutions. There are solutions. Will they be easy? Absolutely not. But it’s a start. We have to start somewhere. This is the start of better things to come. It’s about doing the right thing for the community,” adds Poirier.

You can find the full Livestream HERE.

Throughout the month, incidents in downtown Kenora have included an employee at the Red Apple being the victim of an assault on December 10 and a 23-year-old was arrested.

The owner of Island Girl, Michelle Livingston, was also assaulted on December 23 and a 29-year-old has been taken into custody.

Elsewhere, the Spirit Oak Tree Company warned of harassment at their storefront on December 27. Windows were also reportedly smashed at the Bannister Centre, windows were smashed at Market Square last month, and the deck of Prelude Travel has been damaged.

Those affected by crime or harassment in Kenora’s downtown core can help tell their story by emailing news@kenoraonline.com.