Homeless encampment

A pickup truck is pictured after driving over an unoccupied blue tent at a homeless encampment at Thunder Bay’s County Fair mall. It was an extreme sign of the frustration felt on all sides of Thunder Bay’s growing issues around homelessness, addiction and mental health. The City’s efforts to help are often met by uninformed criticism.

BY IAN PATTISON

An earlier version of this column appeared in the print edition Oct. 23.

Ricky Gervais is one of the funniest people around. The comedian can be cruel to pompous Hollywood stars when he hosts the Golden Globes, but deep down they know he speaks the truth. As when he posted this to Facebook Friday: “Remember, nice, normal, sensible people still outnumber the screaming loons. Social media sometimes gives a very depressing & scary false assessment. Have a lovely day.”

Reading that brings to mind the largely thoughtless abuse faced by the people we elect to carry on the public’s business.

It’s been said that the quality of representation is not what it used to be. Why would it? Why would good-hearted people who care about their communities offer up their names to be chastised and humiliated by people with apparently little else to do but bash anyone trying to make life better for everyone?

Thunder Bay has more than its share of keyboard clickers who jump at the chance to harangue city councillors for sins that don’t exist outside the context of the subject. Politicians need thick skins but sometimes they need to let off steam.

Take this week’s city council meeting where persistent criticism of the municipality over chronic homelessness drew frustration into a discussion on what can be done for an issue that isn’t even in the city’s domain.

“We do a phenomenal amount of work, but to some people, it’s just never, never enough,” said Coun. Albert Aiello, prompted by competing comments over use of an abandoned gas station by homeless people at County Fair mall.

Following numerous complaints by mall tenants and customers over many weeks about the deteriorating state of the expanding encampment with its lack of toilet facilities, the City announced plans to fence off the site. Cruel! Heartless! The allegations rained down on the council in online posts that, while rightly expressing concern for the homeless, ignored the legitimate concerns of those who own the mall, rent space in it to do business, or park and shop there.

One should not discount those concerns just as one should press government for better, consistent ways to respond to growing homelessness as the cost of living rises and the quality of life for many sinks.

It would be difficult to add up the number of times those representing this city have pleaded with senior governments to act on their mandates for homelessness, mental health and addiction, all of which are at crisis levels in Thunder Bay. Armed gangs control neighbourhoods, selling dangerously laced opioids to addicts who feed their habit by prowling residential areas to steal things to sell or hold up convenience stores for cash.

The city needs to ‘do something’ cry the critics.

Mayor Bill Mauro joined the discussion to point out that Thunder Bay does more than many municipalities to respond to matters that the provincial and federal governments are letting fester. He mentioned the release of funds for an emergency warming centre last winter, a bus staffed with personnel to care for individuals in need, for Shelter House and the growing number of emergency food outlets.

Mauro has convened a host of local agencies to try and co-ordinate a meaningful response to developments like the mall encampment where neighbourhood frustration is simmering. One can’t help but wonder if this fueled the apparent decision of one man to drive his truck over a tent where someone had been inside moments earlier.

Such wanton disregard for human suffering is an extreme sign of the frustration felt on all sides of Thunder Bay’s pressing social situation — those experiencing it, those fearing it, and those trying to do something about it.

Those who serve in authority and who are doing their best to get help deserve better than to be publicly harassed online by those who have no appreciation for the work that’s being done.

The City has thrown its support behind a proposal by the 20-member Thunder Bay Mental Health and Addictions Network for a 40-bed crisis centre. Mauro has asked the province to help, noting “some unique factors contributing to the situation we are witnessing in Thunder Bay,” Among those are the exploding population of residents leaving remote First Nations to live in Thunder Bay, many with nowhere to live and no way to survive beyond panhandling and the services of agencies and generosity of volunteers.

Sometimes, of course, politicians don’t help their own cause and can’t dodge legitimate criticism. Many Conservative MPs refuse to declare whether they have been vaccinated against COVID-19, for example. What is it about some Tories that makes them act so dumb?

Ontario Tory Premier Doug Ford and opposition NDP Leader Andrea Horwath are currently involved in a war of attack ads with the next election still eight months away. To his credit, Liberal leader Steven Del Duca has sworn off negative advertising. Unfortunately, though, it’s been shown to work, a further indication of a public immersed in antagonism.

The situation brings to mind the surprise victory of Naheed Nenshi, the first Muslim mayor of a major Canadian city, in Calgary of all places, reputedly populated mostly by right-wing cowboys and oil riggers.

Nenshi’s 2017 campaign manager Zain Velji recalls “online bots and trolls spewing Islamophobic comments . . . a phenomenon that was newish at the time but has only gotten worse since.”

And yet Nenshi won the hearts and votes of a majority of Calgarians which proves again Gervais’ contention that a small minority is responsible for an outsized presence on social media. (Nenshi is openly pondering his future. Ideally, he enters the federal scene where his logical intelligence would be a welcome addition to a Parliament enveloped in rancor.)

Social media sites themselves have come in for criticism for hosting these contrarians. But, as Seneca College English prof Penny Mamais wrote in the Toronto Star this week, “I find it alarming that we are looking to vilify the sites rather than the users that abuse them . . . After all, are we not responsible for our actions? This must include our actions online.”

By all means hold public figures to account, especially those who seek our votes to represent our interests. But for heaven’s sake, give credit where it is due. Certainly at the local level we don’t pay them enough to have to endure brutal tactics by largely anonymous critics who wouldn’t think of running for office themselves. That would be too hard.

Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.