Category Archives: Columns

Column: Making Winters Work

My column in today’s The StarPhoenix

A well-travelled friend once told me that Saskatoon and northern Saskatchewan were the greatest places on Earth to be in the summer and the world’s worst places to live in the winter.

How much I agree with him depends on the wind chill.

Winters here are long and dreary, and they last from October until May some years. Not only does the snow linger, for many of us, the winter mindset dominates our thinking on all sorts of policies and decisions even during the heat of summer.

We argue about new ideas for the city all of the time. “We can’t have bike lanes because it snows half the year.” “The winter is too long to waste money on a pedestrian bridge.” “Money on parks is wasted because they never get used in the winter.”

There is much we don’t do because of this white stuff – even when we are complaining about the heat in the summer.

Other cities aren’t held captive to winter in the same way.

Many Nordic cities with far worse winters than ours have excellent bike infrastructure and keep the trails cleared year-round.

Edmonton struck a committee last year to help manage winters better.

I am not sure if I agree with the approach that Winnipeg and Calgary have taken with elevated walkways, but I was able to walk all over Winnipeg in -40 C temperatures with only a light jacket.

A report prepared for the Minneapolis-St. Paul region mentioned that nine of the 10 happiest American states are ones that feature cold winters, and listed examples of cities that do winter really well.

In Germany, Austria, and France, people look forward to outdoor holiday markets where they can find a festive atmosphere along with holiday decorations, seasonal gifts, and warm food and drink.

New York City has imported the idea and has set up massive outdoor markets across Manhattan. Before you scoff at the idea, look at the large crowds that come out in any weather to Wintershines. People will come if you give them reason to do so.

December is easy, but we have to make February tolerable. Winnipeg is doing an excellent job. The city pays a lot more for winter snow and not only can you drive around, the sidewalks are cleared. Imagine being able to drive and get around on foot. It can happen.

Winnipeg has also installed heated bus shelters at a growing number of stops. Even in -40 C with a brutal wind, I was able to take off my tuque, gloves, and unzip my jacket while waiting for a bus.

The city has slowly added winter warming shacks as attractions along its rivers. It started as a local idea, and now gets international attention from architects and designers. Those shacks get you out of the wind and give you an excuse to brave the elements.

No matter the weather, thousands of people are having fun all winter long.

Adding a few warming huts each year would make a cold and windy Saskatoon riverfront a lot more tolerable. It would also help connect the different business districts which are spread out because of our river.

Holiday seasonal markets would also be perfect in the Saskatoon Farmers Market. Who knows? It could even one day expand into something other than a weekend destination.

The first step is not warming huts or outdoor markets, however – it is to convince council to get serious about residential snow removal. And our business improvement districts must get serious about keeping sidewalks clear.

Then it relies on everyone figuring out ways to make winters more enjoyable.

Maybe it’s a restaurant opening its deck on milder days, or community associations holding outdoor parties in the winter, like they do in the summer.

It requires the city looking at ways of making our parks winter-friendly, perhaps with more fire pits, or ensuring bike lanes are cleared all season long.

It’s bus shelters that actually do keep us warm. Once we figure out how to shed the shackles of a cold winter and enjoy it, we will find out that even our summer months can get better.

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

Column: Prison no place for mentally ill

Today’s column in The StarPhoenix

Of the 15,400 people in federal prisons last year, 610 of them were women. This number has grown about 40 per cent in the last five years and the number of aboriginal women in prison has increased by 80 per cent during the last decade.

These are just some of more interesting numbers that the federal Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers makes in this 2012 annual report. Perhaps the most shocking stories are about how women with mental health are treated while in prison.

A little more than a third of women in prison have been found to have mental health issues. The report says prisoners diagnosed with a mental illness are typically afflicted by more than one disorder and often a substance abuse problem on top of that. These are people who need a lot of mental health assistance.

At conferences during the years I have heard speakers say that some function at a childlike level. Not only do they have no concept of their crimes, but they can’t function at even a basic level in society. For their inability to survive in society, we toss them in prison.

Many imprisoned women have behavioural problems and according to Corrections Canada’s inspector, they are being treated as security problems rather than humans struggling with mental health issues.

The report lays out offenders who hurt themselves typically are isolated, have pepper spray used against them and are moved to more secure parts of the prison. In the case of our own regional psychiatric facility, Corrections Canada put them into Canada’s first padded jail cell when what they really need is treatment.

It is hard not to make a connection between poor mental health care in prison and the rate of suicide in prisons. The report states that in the last five years, the amount of self harm – including suicide attempts – have more than doubled. Women offenders have a very high proportion of attempted suicides.

The report found that when a person tried to commit suicide, that person was punished rather than given needed help. This, of course, creates more suicide attempts, which brings about even more sanctions. It’s a ridiculous cycle.

After reading the report, one is left with the conclusion that mental health issues in prison are still treated as behavioural issues, rather than illnesses. A prisoner who breaks his or her leg or develops cancer is treated. If the prisoner is schizophrenic and suffers from depression, it is a behaviour issue and punishment is handed out.

The numbers show that the system is failing women with mental health issues and we are using prisons as the institution of last resort. One could draw a comparison to the insane asylums of years gone by where many of those who had mental health problems were locked up and forgotten.

Outside of the ethical issues of why we continue to treat people this way, there is another reason to get this fixed now. Those struggling inside of the jail will eventually get out and move back into our communities. We want them to get the best treatment they can inside of prisons so that can reintegrate back into society when they are released.

That doesn’t always happen. Protocols are ignored, medication isn’t released with the offender and if that person had psychiatric help inside the prison, he or she is released with no treatment plan. When the warrants expire, all help (if any was received) is terminated. It’s a recipe for failure.

We forget that failing to help offenders hurts us all.

Canadians don’t pay a lot of attention toward corrections at either the federal or provincial level, but we should. An 80 per cent increase in the numbers of aboriginal women entering our prisons says that something has gone wrong in the last decade. The fact that 69 per cent of the women entering our federal correctional system have mental health problems says that we are failing them.

The Harper government loves to talk about being tough on crime. I am not going to take them seriously until they start improving the conditions of those they put behind bars. Prison should be a place where we start to rehabilitate those who are behind bars, not release them in worse shape than they entered.

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

Saskatoon needs downtown drop-in centre

My column in The StarPhoenix

Saskatoon has been in an uproar over the suggestion the city spend $40,000 to remove the benches in the vicinity of the McDonald’s restaurant on Second Avenue and 22nd Street because people are loitering there all day.

Police officers and business owners with whom I have spoken have real concerns about the street corner. I have seen a couple of drug deals take place there, and there have been reports of violence and harassment of passersby.

Both the police and the Community Support Officers have done some good work to try to manage the problem. Over many lunch hours I have seen a police officer standing there. When the McDonald’s on Second Avenue becomes a police beat, it may be time to do something.

The problem with removing the benches is that it doesn’t accomplish what it is intended to do. I have gone into that McDonald’s over many lunches (Don’t tell my wife. She sent me to work with a salad). The staff is courteous and polite, and McDonald’s provides free coffee refills and sells a lot of soda for $1.

The combination of a friendly staff, free coffee, cheap soda and a centralized location where people can come to meet their friends have turned the restaurant into a downtown drop-in centre. I know people who come from miles away to meet their friends there daily. I am pretty sure that is not the business plan McDonald’s intended.

When you toss in the low fence in the neighbouring parking lot, the location lends itself to loitering. The solution isn’t to remove the benches, or to legislate behaviour. Other cities have learned it doesn’t work. Toronto has given out hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines to the poor and homeless. Numerous American cities have banned people from sitting on the sidewalks. Denver has made it illegal to be homeless by banning urban camping.

It’s the wrong approach. When you have nothing, what is the deterrent effect of a fine? Toronto’s inability to collect any of those fines shows that its policy is a huge failure.

The solution is to deal with the real issue. There are people in Saskatoon who are so far below the poverty line that to them, simple poverty looks like a welcome step up. Many are getting less in social assistance for rent than what their rent costs. Part of their rent has to come out of their living allowance – money that is supposed to be for food.

When people have very little, they at least want to be around their friends. These groups self-organize and find a place to meet. In this case it has become the downtown restaurant. Getting rid of the benches or even the entire McDonald’s won’t change that. They will organize and find somewhere else to meet.

Do we get rid of the benches on 21st Street or shut down the food court at the Midtown Plaza next?

Other growing cities have adopted drop-in centres. It’s not a new concept, as we have had them for youth and teens for decades. This needs to happen downtown for adults. An agency needs to step up and work with the city and downtown neighbours to create a space where people want to come, and at the same time works for neighbouring businesses. It isn’t easy, but as I have seen in visiting great drop-ins from coast to coast, it is possible to find that balance.

It takes a place where people can be warm on cold days, cool on hot days, and have something to drink, a bite to eat, and even some Internet access. From what we have learned in Saskatoon, cheap pop, coffee and hamburgers seem to be the formula people want. Just make sure they have a chance to meet their friends there.

Saskatoon has a downtown full of energy. People want to work, socialize and play there. We all want to be where the action is, regardless of our income. Other cities have learned that drop-in services need to be downtown, because that is where the people are going to congregate.

While this is a local problem, it’s also a reflection of provincial policies. Social Services needs to move beyond merely writing cheques and realize that it has a role to play in issues like this in cities and towns across Saskatchewan.

It was encouraging to see city council’s planning and operations committee look beyond the easy solution and realize there are much more complicated factors at play. Let’s see if council and the provincial government have the political will to address them.

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

Column: Feds must step up for housing

My column in yesterday’s The StarPhoenix (not breaking a lot of news around here today)

In late March, the international aid organization World Vision released a report titled Poverty at Your Doorsteps, which looked at poverty in five major Canadian cities to see how they recovered after the recent global recession.

The report observes a growing economic disparity between the rich and poor in Canada. Poverty is becoming increasingly concentrated among singles, young adults, aboriginal people, recent immigrants and persons with disabilities. These findings have been documented in other national and local reports, including Saskatoon’s own housing business plan.

To compare cities is difficult, as they all have different economic contexts. Even cities as close geographically as Hamilton and Toronto have different fundamentals that drive growth and shape their employment.

However, despite their differences, there is a common thread in each of the five cities. It’s the lack of affordable housing – something that we struggle with in Saskatoon, as well.

According to Statistics Canada, incomes in Saskatoon have grown on average by $12,000 per household since 2006, which is above the national average. The problem for many is that the average house price in our city has risen to around $340,000 during that time, or by more than $150,000.

The statistics are medians that don’t tell the whole story, but it is a trend that affects many people.

Those who work outside the skilled trades or the resource sector have had a tough time, as their wages have not grown at the same rate. Not surprisingly, the Saskatoon Food Bank reported in 2011 that it had 64,930 hamper requests from families, representing 87,963 adults and 64,908 children. The rent has to come from somewhere.

What’s most frustrating is that this problem exists because of the prosperity. It’s not a failure of economic policies but the result of good ones. The better our economy performs, the greater the number of people who move here and the higher the real estate prices rise. More people are left behind because of skyrocketing rents.

If city hall prognosticators are correct in their growth forecasts, and Saskatoon grows to be a city of a half million people in the next 30 years, the lack of affordable housing is a problem that won’t go away.

Despite housing traditionally being a provincial responsibility, the city is doing a lot on this front. It provides housing grants to help people afford their first house, offers grants for affordable housing units across the spectrum of needs, and has gifted parcels of land for projects.

Saskatoon does more than any other city in Canada to make housing affordable. We are a model for all other municipalities, but still aren’t getting ahead. Waiting lists for affordable housing continue to grow.

It’s tough to determine how effective the city’s efforts have been, but compared to Regina whose apartment vacancy rate in 2012 was a minuscule 0.6 per cent rather than Saskatoon’s really low rate of 3.1 per cent, those efforts can be termed successful.

There is a limit to what a city or province can do. Canada is one of few developed countries that doesn’t have a national housing strategy.

Our federal government played a role in national housing policy since the Second World War. For good and for bad, it played a large role in urban affairs and housing into the 1980s. However, since the end of the Trudeau government in 1984, no government has really wanted to tackle housing in Canada.

By the time 1993 came along, the feds got out of housing altogether to focus on the deficit, and left the responsibility with the provinces and cities.

The loss wasn’t felt immediately. The glut of rental properties in most cities had both the units and the rates to absorb new tenants. It’s hard to believe that in the 1980s one could rent an apartment in Saskatoon and get one or two rent-free months each year. Those days are long gone.

With population growth and widening economic disparity, it is time for another national housing strategy that can support local needs while avoiding some of the mistakes of the past. Saskatoon and the province have made some significant progress, but this is a national issue.

The gap between wages and rent is growing. Unaffordable rents and huge mortgages are not a strategy and, until we have one, the problem won’t be solved. The best way to help the working poor get ahead is to provide them with affordable shelter. To make this happen is going to take all three levels of government.

It’s time for Ottawa to step up again.

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix