REMEMBER when Thunder Bay was Canada’s “murder capital” in 2015 . . . and 2014 and 2012 and 2010? Things aren’t quite that bad any more. We’re down to eighth — among 229 Canadian cities, and the year is still young.
More revealing, and surprising, is that in a list of “Canada’s most dangerous places in 2018,” published by Maclean’s, Thunder Bay ranks 58th. So the notion that going out at night is a risky proposition isn’t necessarily borne out by the Crime Severity Index compiled by Statistics Canada based on 2016 data. It depends, of course, on where you go, and as in nearly any city, certain parts of the general downtown areas might best be avoided late at night.
For example, a spate of five knife incidents (knives appear to be the city’s weapon of choice — there were no local firearms offences on the list) occurred in just over a week this month. At 4 a.m. on March 21, a woman was reportedly stabbed with a large knife on notorious George Street. Police reports show that on March 19, a man was stabbed outside the Royalton Hotel on Bay Street. Four days earlier, two men still sought by police, one armed with a knife, demanded cash from a woman on Lake Street. A day before that a man opened the door of a car in the Tim Hortons parking lot on Memorial Avenue and grabbed for the woman driver’s purse before fleeing. He carried a knife. And it’s not just downtown at night. On March 12 a woman shoplifter confronted by a security guard at a Walmart store pulled a knife and fled.
Thunder Bay’s overall crime severity index is 89 compared to the national average of 71. However, when looking at just violent crimes, the severity index here is 130 compared to the national average of 75. There were 761 assaults and 99 sexual assaults on the list, 142 robberies and 583 break-and-enters. Much of this can be tied to the staggering amount of drug and alcohol abuse in Thunder Bay and much of the Northwest.
Been to emergency lately? Reputedly Ontario’s busiest hospital emergency department is sometimes referred to as “a zoo” by people trying to get in. Long waits can be exacerbated by loud incidents fueled by drugs and/or alcohol. Security guards have to be employed day and night in the waiting room and in the crowded halls of the department itself. Drive past the emergency ambulance entrance almost any day and count the number of police vehicles as officers inside guard medical staff against potentially violent impaired patients.
A new report by the Thunder Bay Drug Strategy and the District Health Unit shows Thunder Bay has twice the ER opioid overdose visits and hospitalizations than the Ontario average and the highest rate of opioid deaths. Ontario is second only to B.C. in opioid deaths. Nationally, more people die from overdoes than by motor vehicle accidents and homicides combined. The number of used syringes found lying in public areas in Thunder Bay is frightening. Syringes are commonly used as threat weapons in local convenience store robberies.
Five years ago it was oxycodone. Things got so bad, especially in Thunder Bay (where a province-wide police drug sweep included inmates and an employee at the district jail), that the province tried to replace it with a tamper-proof substitute. That did nothing to stem the rate of overdoses as newer and more powerful pain-medicating opioids were soon on offer. Oxycodone is still with us. Fentanyl is killing drug users with alarming frequency. Naxolone, which can quickly reverse the life-draining effects of fentanyl, is being offered in free kits at drug stores and issued to emergency personnel.
Still, 16 per cent of Thunder Bay residents were prescribed pain-relieving opioids in 2016, mainly methadone, a synthetic opioid ironically intended to treat addiction to other drugs such as heroin, oxycodone and hydromorphone.
In 2007, the federal Health department approved suboxolone, another drug used to treat opioid addiction, but by last fall it still had not been included on the Non-Insured Health Benefits program which provides benefits to First Nations. If Thunder Bay’s addiction rate is alarming, that among Aboriginals is horrifying. First Nations people are prescribed opiate-based painkillers at a rate of 893 per 1,000 population. First Nations with the highest drug use also see the highest suicide rates.
The problem follows First Nation students who must come to Thunder Bay for education. At all-Aboriginal Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School, 43 per cent of the student body was given suboxolone in 2011 in an innovative program by Mae Katt, a pioneering nurse practitioner. As reported by TVO, Katt had remarkable success weaning the students off opioids. Every one of them returned to the Far North drug-free.
Katt successfully petitioned Ottawa to approve suboxolone on a pilot basis on Northwestern Ontario First Nations. In one of those communities, only eight residents were not using opiates. Six communities took part and within just a month, 90 per cent of people had moved to the opiate alternative. But those alternatives are also addictive and a wider program of mental health treatment is essential to finish the job.
Whatever government is doing to try to combat hard drug abuse in Ontario, it is not doing enough. The problem is admittedly complex and widespread but it tears apart families and can ruin communities. It seeps into nearly every walk of life in Thunder Bay where drug-addled people sit on sidewalks or stand on traffic islands begging for money.
The more desperate ones, often carrying knives, rob cars, homes and stores for cash or confront people on the street with sometimes violent results. Most of these addicted individuals are trying to escape desperate realities in their lives that bespeak a much larger issue.
Thunder Bay may no longer be Canada’s murder capital. Instead, it is Ontario’s drug abuse capital with sad and ultimately terrifying consequences that may yet shock the community into its new reality.
Let’s not wait for that eventuality. Let’s instead lead the way by pressuring Queen’s Park and Ottawa to convene a summit and ask people like Mae Katt and those with the Thunder Bay Drug Strategy how to overcome a dangerous problem that is getting worse fast.
Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.