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Addiction, mental health crisis front and centre at northern Ontario tourism summit

The Destination Northern Ontario tourism board passed a resolution at its recent AGM, pledging support to address the issues of homelessness, mental health and addiction
A Soo Locks tour boat cruises past the scene of a random stabbing on Sault Ste. Marie's boardwalk on Sept. 7, 2023. Destination Northern Ontario says tourism in the region is suffering as a result of the mental health and addictions crisis and the crime that sometimes is associated with it.

A regional tourism organization says the mental health and addictions crisis is having a negative impact on tourism across the north and it wants to be a part of the solution.

The Northern Ontario Tourism Summit is underway in Sault Ste. Marie, with information sessions including cycling tourism, fish and wildlife updates and funding opportunities for tourism businesses. Also on the agenda this year was a panel discussion held Wednesday titled: Addressing the Mental Health, Addiction and Homelessness Crisis in Northern Ontario.

Mental Health, Addiction and Homelessness may seem like an out of place topic at a tourism summit, but Destination Northern Ontario board chair Marty Kalagian said those issues reverberate through the entire industry. Not content with only pointing out the challenges created by the crisis, the organization passed a resolution during its recent annual general meeting pledging its support to address the issue.

"We decided we heard it and maybe we can help a little bit to try and make it better by adding our voice and hoping that will get other people to add their voices too and begin to get an answer together for all of this," Kalagian told SooToday. “We thought about it and we figured we have to add a voice to this. I don’t know how much good it will do but we have to do what we can do."

In the intro to the session, moderator Heather Gropp said mental health, addictions and homelessness is a growing crisis in northern Ontario.

"These issues do impact the tourism industry and we are limited to our future growth and recovery in the region," said Gropp. “This is a situation that impacts all of us and we all need to be a part of the solution."

She said the purpose of the panel discussion was to bring increased awareness to the crises and how it is affecting the industry, to learn about existing initiatives being implemented across the north and learn how tourism industry can lend support and be a part of a solution.

The panel included Carolyn Hepburn, dean of Sault College’s Indigenous Education, School of Natural Environment and Media & Design; Mike Nadeau, CEO of the District of Sault Ste Marie Social Services Administration Board; and Justin Marchand, CEO Ontario Aboriginal Housing Services.

Nadeau said it will take all of northern Ontario pulling in the same direction to help overcome the crisis and lauded Destination Northern Ontario for its commitment to helping address the issues.

“When we start to work together and really figure this out, I see a tremendous economic benefit that will be attached to that," said Nadeau. 

Downtowns across northern Ontario continue to deal with the negative impacts of mental health, addiction and homelessness issues.

"As we start to solve this and we start to have a different community feel and we start getting people housed and get them mental health and addiction treatment that they require, that will start to lessen and I think it will get easier to attract people to northern Ontario," said Nadeau.

He said he is often called by local business owners who are frustrated with the issues they see.

“They are looking for a solution to that problem and are calling us. Before they used to call police, which tells me they are frustrated with the police response that no one is helping," said Nadeau. “Interestingly they are not blaming the individual, but they are frustrated with the system. They are saying this system is not working for me anymore. How do we actually start to get solutions that solve some of the problems businesses are having?"

Those solutions, said Nadeau, are more likely to come from the local and regional level.

”Typically Queen's Park or Ottawa hasn’t really been great at figuring out local community solutions — we need that to be led by the community and for the community and I think from a business, economic and social perspective, once we start to figure this out I think we’re all going to be better off for it,” he said.

Nadeau said northern Ontario's access to services for mental health and addiction are not keeping up with the ever-increasing need.

“We need to make sure we are speaking with one voice and that is the voice of community and we need to start making sure our voices are heard to get those precious resources up here because our people are struggling and our businesses are struggling as a result of lack of resources, in my opinion,” he said.

Marchand noted that Indigenous people are disproportionately represented in the homeless population across the north.

"Here in Sault Ste. Marie, at least 68 per cent of people experiencing homelessness are Indigenous. As you move further north to Timmins, or on the other side of the province Kenora and Sioux Lookout areas, 90-plus per cent of the people experiencing homelessness are Indigenous,” said Marchand. “Right now there is a serious mismatch in the volume of people experiencing homelessness and the resources that are allocated to address this issue."

He called the criminal justice, health care and child and family services systems factories that create homelessness issues. He noted over 50 per cent of people experiencing homelessness have experience with child and family services systems in the first 18 years of their lives.

“There are more Indigenous children in care right now than there were at the height of residential schools. We have already seen this movie play, we know what happens when you rip children away from their culture and away from their family. The movie does not end well,” said Marchand.

Hepburn said identifying and addressing the root causes of mental health, addiction and homelessness issues is one of the keys to solving the crisis, but noted there is a backlog in many of the services in place to treat those very issues.

“I think a really big piece is the education piece and understanding those root causes and why this is occurring in our community because I think our communities are getting tired and they are getting frustrated," said Hepburn. "As a business owner, how do I address the homeless person who may be sleeping in the front of my storefront? How do I deal with increased crime on our beautiful boardwalk in town? We know we have issues and I see the fatigue and I see the anger from our community who are saying your addiction, your mental health is not my issue, but it’s impacting me. Why should I have to pay?”

She noted there are many opportunities for the tourism sector to become involved in addressing the issues, like a recently announced initiative by Sleep Inn in Sault Ste. Marie that is supporting Pauline's Place Non-Profit Homes Inc. through a Santa photo fundraiser in partnership with Moonlight Magic and The Downtown Association. 

"It’s a great way that a local tourism business is working with local service agencies to not only demonstrate and shoulder support, caring and concern but actually actively investing the time to create those partnerships and create that awareness in the community,” she said.

The Northern Ontario Tourism Summit wraps up with a gala awards dinner Thursday evening at the Quattro Hotel and Conference Centre.

Kenneth Armstrong

About the Author: Kenneth Armstrong

Kenneth Armstrong is a news reporter and photojournalist who regularly covers municipal government, business and politics and photographs events, sports and features.
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