An Ontario mayor has linked his town’s issues to colonialism. Will it make a difference?

Many Sioux Lookout residents grapple with homelessness, addiction, and mental illness. Mayor Doug Lawrance recently became the first municipal leader in the province to point to colonialism as the cause
By Jon Thompson - Published on June 3, 2019
Sioux Lookout municipal offices
Doug Lawrance, mayor of Sioux Lookout, last month sent a letter to the provincial and federal governments blaming European colonialism for his town’s problems. (Jon Thompson)

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SIOUX LOOKOUT — There’s a homelessness crisis in a northwestern Ontario town, and the mayor says he can’t solve it. That’s because, according to him, it takes more than local government to solve a centuries-old issue.

In Sioux Lookout, a town of 5,200 people, 10 Indigenous homeless people died in the winter of 2018. And although Indigenous people make up roughly 40 per cent of the town’s population, the Kenora District Services Board estimates that the homeless population in Sioux Lookout is more than 90 per cent Indigenous.

On May 6, Mayor Doug Lawrance sent a letter to the provincial and federal governments explaining that homelessness, addiction, and mental-health issues in his town are “a direct and consequential result” of European colonialism and are therefore beyond his abilities to handle.

“If you want to look at the roots of some of these challenges, they go back to the colonial way this country has developed with respect to Indigenous peoples,” Lawrance told TVO.org. “It started hundreds of years ago through policies in colonial times that have carried on. That’s the root. You don’t have to look too far. You don’t have to create false reasons.”

With this declaration, Lawrance became the first mayor in Ontario to frame social crises in this way. But what will it accomplish?

For some, merely stating that colonialism is to blame for many of the problems facing Indigenous communities is worthwhile. The province’s systems of government, policing, and social services “weren’t created by our people,” says Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa, who was born in Sioux Lookout. “They’re colonial systems, and they discriminate systemically. It’s racism. People just normalize it.”

Some experts hope that naming the problem will help reshape the groups tasked with solving it. Damien Lee, an associate fellow at the Yellowhead Institute and a member of Fort William First Nation who specializes in Indigenous governance and decolonization, says, “The game here is always, ‘How do the effects of colonialism either marginalize or make invisible?’ If you have people who are the most affected by colonialism being put into leadership positions, the solutions will account for the ways that colonialism manifests in Indigenous communities that often non-Indigenous communities don’t necessarily see because it doesn’t affect them in the same way.”

Lawrance’s letter calls for the federal and provincial governments to establish a task force with Sioux Lookout and Nishnawbe Aski Nation, the governing body of the territory that lies north of Sioux Lookout and represents 49 First Nations. “Both the federal government and province try to do good things for Indigenous people,” he wrote, “and the municipalities are frequently left out of that equation.” He hopes to discuss infrastructure projects, such as an addiction-treatment facility, safehouses for women and youth, transitional and supportive housing, and a new emergency shelter. Neither Canada nor Ontario has yet responded to his letter.

Sioux Lookout is where members of dozens of remote First Nations communities travel to access services. Currently, Lawrance says, too many of the region’s problems are left to under-resourced local police.  “We have so many gaps in service, and there’s so much crisis that’s being left for the police to deal with,” Lawrance says. “The need is incredible.”

Sioux Lookout and its northern neighbour, Pickle Lake, are the province’s two most expensive municipalities to police per household. In 2017, the Sioux Lookout OPP took 10,000 calls for service, and North West EMS received 4,200 ambulance calls — that’s nearly two police calls and one ambulance visit per resident.

Costs are growing unsustainably, according to Henry Wall, the chief administrative officer of the Kenora District Services Board: “Sioux Lookout is off the charts compared to any other community in Ontario.”

In 2016 the KDSB — which manages social housing, homelessness, social assistance, and ambulance services in an area that includes Sioux Lookout — tracked eight homeless people in Sioux Lookout. The KDSB found they cost a combined $1 million dollars in public expenditures (mostly policing, detention, and ambulance services). Using this information, Wall persuaded the district’s nine municipalities and the provincially funded Aboriginal Housing Services to build a 20-unit supportive-housing complex. The centre offers life-skills training and one-on-one relationships with trained caseworkers, and it’s staffed 24 hours a day.

According to Wall, the complex has helped reduce the strain on local services by providing residents support at home. Since it opened in August, Wall estimates that its residents have avoided $300,000 worth of interactions with police, while some individuals have decreased their ambulance calls by more than half. He predicts that the complex will have paid for itself within five years.

Wall attributes the success of the housing project to interviews that staff conducted with residents, who convinced him that intergenerational colonial trauma is ongoing. Notably, roughly 30 children of residents of the complex are currently in government care.

“We need to help. Not in the sense that we know best, because we don’t,” Wall says. “I have no authority to say this, but I think it needs to be said: while residential school is done with, it has a new face. We’re replicating the whole issue in terms of splitting families. We’re taking children away for their safety when we should be helping Mom and Dad.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.

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