Hon. Greg Rickford
Minister of Indigenous Affairs
Suite 400, 160 Bloor St East
Toronto, ON M7A 2E6
Dear Minister Rickford:
I hope this finds you well. I am writing today about the Kenora emergency shelter (shelter) operated by the Ne-Chee Friendship Centre in conjunction with the provincially-funded Kenora District Services Board (KDSB). In particular, we understand that the shelter has been ordered to be temporarily shut down effective Monday, August 12, 2019.
Under section 29 of the Ontario Human Rights Code (Code), the OHRC can initiate reviews and inquiries and make recommendations related to incidents of tension or conflict in a community. Pursuant to this authority, I am writing to call on the government to ensure that the shelter is not closed, even on a temporary basis.
In 2017, the OHRC wrote the Mayor of Kenora to encourage the city to approve changes to its Zoning Bylaw to allow for the operation of an emergency shelter in the downtown area. The OHRC referred to In the Zone, its guide on human rights in municipal planning, and offered to provide related training. On July 16, 2019, the OHRC wrote to congratulate the City on taking steps to facilitate development of shelters, social housing and other affordable housing, through amendments to its Official Plan and Zoning Bylaw. We noted that secure and affordable housing is an essential step toward addressing poverty, and providing for safe, stable and equitable communities.
The decision to temporarily close the shelter will have a disproportionate negative impact on Indigenous peoples and vulnerable community members, and may violate rights protected under the Code. The shelter provides 44 beds and we understand that approximately 80 per cent of the people served are Indigenous. Closing the shelter will force extremely vulnerable people to fend for themselves on the streets of Kenora. There are specific concerns that seniors with serious health issues will not be able to survive on the street, and that young women who are at risk of being trafficked may face exploitation and violence.
The OHRC acknowledges that like many northern municipalities, Kenora is facing a drug crisis, and evidence-based steps must be taken to address the associated social problems. However, closing the only emergency shelter in Kenora is not one of these steps. This will not solve any problems – it will only create new ones. It is particularly dangerous to close the shelter without any clear plan to address the needs of the vulnerable people who currently access its services. The decision may also violate human rights law.
We understand that the Board of the Ne-Chee Friendship Centre does not support the temporary closure, and that senior leadership has told you directly about their concerns for the health and safety of people who currently use the shelter. Grand Council Treaty 3 Ogichidaa Francis Kavanaugh publicly stated that the closure is a “social emergency of epidemic proportions,” and has called for greater cooperation between First Nations and municipal leaders to meet the needs of vulnerable people in the community.
While the legal authority underlying the decision to close the shelter is unclear, we understand that you were directly involved in its announcement. The OHRC therefore calls on the Government of Ontario to reconsider its decision to close the shelter, or at the very least, delay the August 12 deadline to ensure that local service providers can put proper social supports in place to meet the needs of the vulnerable people who access the shelter. To the extent that the decision was formally made by the KDSB, the government should request that the decision be revoked, and offer additional financial support to address the needs of vulnerable people in the community. As the operator of the shelter, the Ne-Chee Friendship Centre must be involved in all discussions about the shelter.
I hope that we can schedule a meeting to discuss this urgent matter at your earliest convenience.
Renu Mandhane, B.A., J.D., LL.M.
cc: Patti Fairfield, Executive Director, Ne-Chee Friendship Centre
Ogichidaa Francis Kavanaugh, Grand Council Treaty #3
Hon. Todd Smith, Minister of Children, Community and Social Services
Barry Baltessen, Chair, Kenora District Services Board
Henry Wall, Chief Administrative Officer, Kenora District Services Board
Mayor Dan Reynard, City of Kenora
Shawn Batise, Deputy Minister, Ministry of Indigenous Affairs