Language selector

Report and recommendations on homelessness in Kenora

Page controls

September 17, 2019

Page content


Report and recommendations on homelessness in Kenora

Ontario Human Rights Commission

This report summarizes the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s (OHRC) observations and recommendations on the issues of homelessness and drug addiction in Kenora, Ontario. Under section 29 of the Ontario Human Rights Code, the OHRC can initiate reviews and inquiries and make recommendations related to incidents of tension or conflict in a community.

The OHRC is releasing this report in advance of the re-opening of the Kenora emergency shelter in the Knox Church at 116 5th Ave South (Shelter) on September 26. The goal of this report is to assist the community as it moves forward to tackle serious social issues that are causing tension and conflict in the community and broader region.

At the outset, the OHRC would like to acknowledge that Kenora is in Treaty 3 territory and is the traditional territory of the Ojibway and Chippewa peoples. It is also the home of the historic Rainy Lake/Lake of the Woods Métis community.

The OHRC thanks all the individuals and organizations that spoke to us and shared their perspectives on the urgent issues facing the community. Everyone we spoke to was candid and open about the challenges they are facing, and eager to hear our ideas about solutions. Many people noted that it was meaningful and important for community members to feel seen and heard by the OHRC.

The OHRC recognizes that many positive steps are being taken to address acute homelessness and drug addiction, which disproportionately affect First Nations people living in the community. However, in our view, the success of those initiatives is hindered by a lack of effective communication between government agencies and the Indigenous-led organizations that provide services on the ground, as well as systemic issues related to housing and social services.

As set out in more detail below, the OHRC urges the Kenora District Services Board (KDSB) and the City of Kenora (City) to develop more robust communications with the Ne-Chee Friendship Centre, First Nations leaders and community members, and other Indigenous-led service providers. This will ensure that the needs of service users are accurately identified and appropriately met. Higher levels of government must also take steps to provide immediate financial and technical support to address the homelessness emergency, and to address the systemic barriers that exist that are preventing the needs of vulnerable and marginalized people in Kenora from being met.

Perhaps most importantly, there needs to be a culture shift in terms of how leaders and service providers understand and meet the needs of marginalized and vulnerable people who call Kenora home. It must start with accepting that all people are welcome in Kenora, and that all people are entitled to basic dignity and respect. At minimum, it requires understanding and accepting their lived experiences and developing solutions that put their needs at the centre of decision-making. Homelessness and addiction are difficult social problems, but they must be addressed directly and honestly. They cannot and will not be solved by pushing vulnerable people out of sight.


OHRC engagements in Kenora

These observations and recommendations are based on two visits to Kenora by OHRC Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane and OHRC staff. In February 2017, the Chief Commissioner met Ogichidaa Grand Chief Francis Kavanaugh of Treaty 3 territory, Ne-Chee Friendship Centre leadership and First Nations community members who attended a traditional sharing circle. The Chief Commissioner also toured and met with management, staff and prisoners at the Kenora Jail. She heard first-hand about challenges faced by First Nations people related to education, child welfare, policing, corrections and housing. A common theme was the need for stronger cooperation between government institutions, including the City, and Indigenous communities.

During the 2017 visit, the Chief Commissioner also met with then-Mayor David Canfield and later wrote him to encourage the City to approve changes to its Zoning Bylaw to allow the Shelter to operate 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.

In July 2019, the Chief Commissioner wrote to Mayor Daniel Reynard and members of City Council to congratulate the City on taking steps to facilitate the development of shelters, social housing and other affordable housing through amendments to its Official Plan and Zoning Bylaw. The OHRC was pleased that the City contacted us about efforts to address its housing shortage, and to request staff-level guidance on strategies to ensure human rights are upheld in municipal planning. The OHRC noted that secure and affordable housing is an essential step toward addressing poverty and providing for safe, stable and equitable communities.

On August 9, 2019, upon learning that the Shelter would be temporarily shut down on August 12, the Chief Commissioner wrote Minister of Indigenous Affairs Greg Rickford, who is also the MPP for Kenora-Rainy River. The letter stressed that the decision to temporarily close the Shelter would have a disproportionate negative impact on Indigenous peoples and would force seniors and young women at risk of trafficking to fend for themselves on the streets of Kenora. The OHRC called on the Government of Ontario and/or the KDSB to reconsider and/or delay its decision to close the Shelter and to adopt an evidence-based approach to address the current drug crisis. The Chief Commissioner also requested an urgent meeting with the Minister.

Minister Rickford responded on August 16, 2019 (Appendix A). The Minister clarified that the KDSB made the decision to temporarily close the Shelter in response to “overwhelming concerns from the community,” which were also communicated to him in his capacity as MPP. He went on to state that “it is within my capacity as the MPP that I have been working closely with local partners, businesses and concerned citizens who have significant concerns for the safety of residents, visitors and employees located downtown.” Beyond a reference to increased calls for service to the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP), the Minister did not state that crime had increased in the community or that the Shelter had directly caused harm to residents, visitors or downtown employees. The Minister did not outline his efforts to work closely with Indigenous leaders or social service providers. He noted that he would be “happy to discuss this further” with the Chief Commissioner. Despite the OHRC following up to schedule a meeting, no meeting has been scheduled.

The Shelter closure was delayed one week to August 17 to find beds for existing Shelter users. Unfortunately, despite this delay, we understand that some Shelter users were not able to obtain emergency housing and are now homeless.

After moving forward with the temporary closure, the KDSB invited the Chief Commissioner to attend their September Board meeting. The Chief Commissioner also received letters from Sioux-Lookout Mayor Doug Lawrance (Appendix B).

The Chief Commissioner attended the KDSB Board meeting in Dryden, Ontario on September 12 and met with Board members, Chief Administrative Officer Henry Wall and senior staff. At the meeting, the KDSB advised that approximately 95% of homeless individuals in Kenora identify as First Nations. KDSB provided the OHRC with qualitative and quantitative materials about the social context (Appendix C). The background materials show that:

  • The waiting list for housing in the District of Kenora has increased by 186% since 2011
  • The KDSB supported over 13,383 nightly stays for 1,470 individuals in emergency shelters
  • The most common reasons given by individuals staying at the emergency shelter included: the judicial system (waiting for court, released from jail or on bail), medical services, missed transportation, escaping violence, “kicked out” or because the individual had no other place to go
  • Sixty-two per cent of homeless individuals in the District of Kenora identified addiction or substance use as one of the reasons for their homelessness
  • In 2017, there were 18,329 calls for service to the OPP detachment in Kenora and 5,107 calls for service to the KDSB’s Northwest EMS. Kenora’s population is 15,096.

The KDSB also drew the OHRC’s attention to the 1973 report While People Sleep, which documented sudden deaths of Indigenous people in Kenora, most often involving alcohol addiction. That report called on the federal and provincial governments to take “immediate and positive” action to address the crisis, including improved coordination of social services and greater consultation with Indigenous people. One member of the Board lamented that “nothing has changed.”

Between September 11 and 13, the Chief Commissioner and OHRC staff also travelled to Kenora and met with:

  • Ogichidaa Grand Council Treaty 3 Chief Francis Kavanaugh and Executive Director of Grand Council Treaty 3, Samuel Tanyi-Mbianyor
  • Wauzhushk Onigum First Nation Chief Chris Skead
  • Nee Chee Friendship Centre Executive Director Patti Fairfield and Board Chair Marlene Elder
  • Management and staff of the Shelter
  • Members of the Kenora Police Services Board, including Sara Dias (Executive Director of the Canadian Mental Health Association-Kenora), Mayor Dan Reynard, and past-Mayor David Canfield
  • OPP Kenora Detachment Commander Jeffrey Duggan and Detachment Manager Adam Illman
  • Executive Director Yvonne Bearbull and management and staff of the Fellowship Centre
  • Users of the Shelter and the Fellowship Centre
  • CEO of the Northwestern Health Unit Marilyn Herbacz
  • Medical Officer of Health Kit Young Hoon.

In its meeting with the OPP and Kenora Police Services Board, the OHRC was advised that there had been a slight drop in the year-over-year rate of violent crimes, drug crimes and property crimes.

The OHRC also received information and documents from a confidential source, including postings from the social media group “Rant n Rave-Kenora.”


Key observations

Based on the totality of the information, the OHRC makes the following observations:

  • Northwestern Ontario faces unique and growing social service challenges that have a disparate negative impact on First Nations peoples. These challenges are related to:
    • intergenerational trauma associated with residential schools and the “Sixties Scoop”
    • persistent racism and discrimination against First Nations peoples
    • a lack of social supports and economic opportunities for Indigenous peoples, both on reserve and in the region’s urban areas
    • high rates of alcohol and drug addiction without adequate treatment or support
    • a severe housing shortage
    • a shortage of skilled healthcare and social service workers
    • geographic isolation, remoteness and a lack of affordable public transportation
    • a relatively small tax base.
  • Kenora is facing an immediate homelessness and drug addiction crisis which has a disproportionate impact on First Nations people who live in the city. It’s a crisis where loss of life is foreseeable (see Appendix D). The immediate crisis is related to:
    • the forced displacement of vulnerable people, including people with addictions and mental health disabilities, who had been living in a substandard low-rise apartment building (Lila’s Place), coupled with fires that demolished two other low-income apartments in recent years
    • the recent arrival of methamphetamine (“crystal meth”) from Winnipeg and associated health and safety-related issues
    • the closure of other emergency shelter services at the Fellowship Centre due to lack of sustainable funding.
  • While the City and KDSB are genuinely committed to addressing this crisis, their effectiveness has been impeded by:
    • poor communication with and between social service providers
    • pressure being exerted on service providers to achieve desired outcomes without always respecting their opinions or working with them to address their concerns
    • a lack of trust and poor communication with First Nations leaders and Indigenous-led service providers
    • failure to put the needs of the most vulnerable people at the centre of all decisions
    • ignoring or minimizing persistent racism and discrimination against First Nations peoples who live in Kenora.
  • Despite a drop in violent crimes, drug crimes and property crimes, the City, KDSB and OPP have taken specific actions that have – whether intentionally or not – increased the stigma and fear associated with shelter users, homeless or street-involved people and/or intravenous drug users without providing sufficient evidence to justify these heavy-handed measures. Examples include:
    • delaying amendments to the Zoning Bylaw and thereby legitimizing rather than addressing public controversy over the location of the Shelter
    • replacing grassy areas and public stairwells with rocks to deter street-involved or homeless people from using public spaces (see Appendix D)
    • seizing or destroying the personal belongings of homeless people who have been relegated to “tent cities” on the outskirts of downtown
    • temporarily closing the Shelter without educating the community on the reasons for closure
    • announcing the Shelter closure at a press conference with Minister Rickford, who framed it as a measure to reclaim the city from shelter users (“We want our city back”).



Based on these key observations, the OHRC makes the following recommendations to assist Kenora with addressing the immediate and long-term challenges identified above.


To the KDSB

  1. Before reopening the Shelter on September 26:
    1. meet with shelter users to understand their experiences and needs, and to communicate what they can expect over the short term
    2. ensure robust communication with the Ne-Chee Friendship Centre to clarify expectations and understand what they need to provide a safe environment for shelter users and staff
    3. ensure robust communication with all relevant social service providers to ensure they understand what is happening and how it might affect their services
    4. host a community forum in collaboration with the City and Ne-Chee Friendship Centre to provide relevant information about the re-opening of the Shelter, dispel any possible misconceptions, answer any questions and seek the community’s support.
  2. Continue to create forums for all social service providers to share knowledge and information, both from Western and Indigenous world views and perspectives. Everyone should be able to participate equally. Meetings should be co-chaired with Indigenous leaders and adopt a culturally appropriate format like a sharing circle. Appropriate Elders should be identified and invited to provide guidance and reflections.
  3. Meet with and understand the diverse needs and perspectives of shelter users, homeless people and/or intravenous drug users and front-line service providers; and ensure that all policies, programs and initiatives are responsive to their identified needs and do not increase stigma or discrimination.
  4. Consistent with Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Call to Action 57, undertake and require regular cultural safety training developed in collaboration with local First Nations communities and Indigenous-led organizations.


To the City of Kenora

  1. Meet with and understand the diverse needs and perspectives of shelter users, homeless people and/or intravenous drug users and front-line service providers; and ensure that all policies, programs and initiatives are responsive to their identified needs and do not increase stigma or discrimination.
  2. Create a working group that includes diverse community members and Indigenous peoples to report on the lived experience of racism and discrimination in Kenora (similar to the 1974 While we Sleep report).
  3. Consistent with TRC Call to Action 57, undertake and require regular cultural safety training developed in collaboration with local First Nations communities and Indigenous-led organizations.


To all regional, municipal, social service and Indigenous stakeholders

  1. Work collaboratively to develop and implement a poverty reduction and affordable housing strategy.
  2. Work collaboratively to develop and implement a harm reduction strategy to address the health and social needs of intravenous drug users, with time-bound commitments and measurable outcomes.
  3. Work collaboratively to create an outreach and education campaign to combat the stigma associated with homelessness and drug addiction.
  4. Consistent with TRC Call to Action 43, work collaboratively with First Nations and Indigenous leaders to develop an action plan to fully adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as the framework for reconciliation and anti-racism activities.


To the provincial and federal governments:

  1. Provide immediate financial and technical support to address the homelessness emergency in Kenora region.
  2. Meet with municipal governments the KDSB, social service stakeholders and diverse Indigenous peoples to understand their concerns about homelessness and drug addiction, and systemic barriers to meeting related needs.
  3. Provide all required technical and financial assistance to help with developing and implementing action plans related to poverty reduction, affordable housing, harm reduction and implementation of the TRC Calls to Action.
  4. Consistent with TRC Call to Action 43, work collaboratively with First Nations and Indigenous leaders to fully adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as the framework for reconciliation.


Appendixes available on request to

Appendix A: Letter from the Honourable Greg Rickford, Minister of Indigenous Affairs and MPP for Kenora-Rainy River to Ontario Human Rights Commission Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane, August 16, 2019.

Appendix B: Letters from Mayor Doug Lawrance, the Municipality of Sioux Lookout to Ontario Human Rights Commission Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane, September 4, 2019 and September 17, 2019.

Appendix C: Briefing note from Kenora District Services Board to Ontario Human Rights Commission Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane, September 12, 2019.

Appendix D: Photos taken during the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s visit to Kenora, Ontario, September 11–13, 2019.