IT TAKES a lot to get national news media to take notice of Thunder Bay. A series of unexplained Indigenous youth deaths followed by allegations of racism on the city police force got their attention and now they’re peering hard at what’s going on here. Good. Because local media reports about the city’s travails don’t grab political attention the way national stories do. And Thunder Bay needs all the political attention it can get.
The Toronto Star was first to take an interest in the racial and social chasm that’s been aggravated by an estimated 17,000 transients on the city’s streets. Most of them are from remote First Nations; some of them are gang members from southern Ontario, armed to the teeth, who’ve moved into the lucrative drug market that has developed here.
Government funding for municipal programs is based upon official population numbers. Little wonder that city hall and the police department are beside themselves trying to get provincial and federal attention focused on the real size and scope of this city’s troubles.
Ottawa recently handed Toronto millions to fight gun and drug violence. For its part, Queen’s Park has begun reducing funds for many of the programs it mandates municipalities to conduct. The disconnect is jarring.
The Globe and Mail set up a Thunder Bay bureau to document the sad and often grisly story of a city beset by racial issues, homelessness and a hard drug habit that’s Ontario’s worst per capita.
This week, Matt Galloway began his stint as new host of CBC Radio’s The Current by relating the tragic stories of dead drug addicts as told by their grieving and angry families. One father questions the conclusion by police and the coroner that his son died of an accidental drug overdose, calling it murder.
Maybe he’s right. After all, dealers are cutting already ultra-powerful fentanyl with other drugs like heroin, cocaine and crack to increase the high and further hook the user. At the very least aren’t resulting deaths manslaughter?
Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more toxic than morphine. Mixing it greatly increases the risk of overdose. After that, death can come quickly.
One parent told Galloway that her son had been using carfentanil, an opioid that is used by veterinarians for very large animals like elephants. It is approximately 100 times more toxic than fentanyl and 10,000 times more toxic than morphine. This means carfentanil can be deadly in extremely small amounts.
City police – the ones reviled by so many residents convinced the entire force is riddled with racists and doesn’t take troubled addicts’ cases seriously – have been making some headway on the drug front. They have busted many dealers, but it seems that for every dealer busted, another one or more moves in, from Toronto, Ottawa and beyond, to carve out a piece of a drug market that has placed enormous strain on police, social services, shelters and the hospital.
Police were already stretched thin dealing with a culture of abusive living that has been ingrained here for decades. Armed robberies, assaults galore, drunkenness on a scale unheard of in many other communities. And alcohol really is the root of most of it.
The latest indicator came over the Christmas holidays when impaired driving arrests soared, part of a pattern that saw these arrests rise from about 120 in 2015 to 204 by last year’s end. And whereas drug-impaired driving made up just four per cent of arrests in 2015, that number has risen to 25 per cent – highest in Ontario.
We’ve got a serious problem here and we’re not getting the attention and help it merits from senior governments. Local media have been reporting on this for years and now national media outlets have taken notice. The question remains, when will the Conservative government in Toronto and the Liberals in Ottawa do the same?
Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.