Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/3/2019 (444 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
ON Sept. 19, 2015, an eclectic group of about 20 Winnipeggers gathered at the McPhillips Station Casino to test their luck.
The crew included police officers, firefighters and paramedics. Indigenous leaders, such as Damon Johnston of the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg, attended, as did business leaders, such as Mark Chipman of True North Sports and Entertainment Ltd. Together they formed the Community Wellness and Public Safety Alliance — or the Alliance, for short.
Although their name may sound like short-hand for a pack of everyday superheroes, the Alliance doesn’t have a clear villain in its crosshairs. Its mission is broader: trying to transform how Winnipeg, and by extension Manitoba, deals with an addictions crisis that has no end in sight.
"We sat down together and we figured out that if we tried to attack these problems in isolation, that if we tried to go it alone, that we wouldn’t be successful," said Dave Thorne, Alliance’s co-chairman and a retired Winnipeg Police Service deputy chief.
"So there’s this real desire to sit down as a group, figure out some solutions to some of these social and health problems... that were driving a lot of the work that the police are doing, but were also leaving a negative impression of our downtown."
Thorne now works as a consultant for MNP (Meyers Norris Penny) and helped create a business plan for the Alliance. It was completed in September 2018 and called "Transformed Approach to the Treatment of Chronic and Acute Substance Abuse."
Essentially, the group looked at current service-delivery models in Winnipeg, which operate largely in silos. It offered a blueprint for a more cohesive, cost-efficient method — a multi-functional drop-in facility with a suggested location of 190 Disraeli Freeway. It would hold many services under one roof, including a medical unit, intoxicated persons intake, a harm-reduction centre and a variety of community programs.
The facility would also include a community court focused on resolutions for people dealing with significant mental health and addictions issues, and a continuum of services for people seeking legal, housing and employment advice.
Members of the Alliance visited Calgary, Edmonton and Saskatoon to interview front-line organizations about best practices. More than four years later, it is ready to present a plan of its own.
"I think a question that Canadians have to ask themselves now is what kind of city, what kind of province, what kind of country do we want to live in?" Damon Johnston said in an interview. "Are we prepared to make the strategic investments necessary to address some of these bigger issues that we’re facing as Canadians?"
The next major hurdle is securing the political will to back up its plans.
The group has briefed members of the provincial government and officials at Winnipeg city hall, including Mayor Brian Bowman.
He wasn’t available for an interview Wednesday, but two Manitoba ministers seemed to be on side.
Though they weren’t prepared to commit government funding, Justice Minister Cliff Cullen and Health Minister Cameron Friesen said in a joint interview they believe the Alliance plan shows potential.
Friesen called the Alliance’s collaborative approach "quintessentially Manitoban," and said it dovetails well with recommendations laid out in last year’s Virgo report on mental health and addictions.
"It is aligned so well with what our government has said about (how) the government is not going to solve the meth crisis," he said.
"I think what this demonstrates is you have Manitobans who come from the business community and the non-profit community, and people with experience and expertise in front-line service delivery, tethered together shoulder to shoulder. They’re coming to government in a spirit of co-operation and saying, ‘Does this help?’ Our response back would be, ‘It absolutely helps.’"
Cullen said he sees "all kinds of potential for further work (and) further co-ordination" with the Alliance.
Christian Schmidt, deputy chief with the Winnipeg Fire and Paramedic Service, said the estimated construction cost of the facility is $39 million, while annual operating costs are pegged at $29 million.
Thorne said the Alliance doesn’t expect any level of government to give it new money, but hopes reorganization of the health-care system, including the development of Shared Health, which is focused on mental health and addictions treatment delivery, will funnel existing funds in its favour.
The province recently announced it would close the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba, folding those services into Shared Health.
It’s a gamble, but the Alliance can’t afford to wait.
"Some people are dying because they can’t be treated effectively," Johnston said, noting availability for methamphetamine-related addictions treatment is too sparse in Manitoba right now.
"The need is tomorrow, yesterday. But unfortunately, we sometimes live in a system that can’t respond that quickly."
Your support has enabled us to provide free access to stories about COVID-19 because we believe everyone deserves trusted and critical information during the pandemic.
Our readership has contributed additional funding to give Free Press online subscriptions to those that can’t afford one in these extraordinary times — giving new readers the opportunity to see beyond the headlines and connect with other stories about their community.
To those who have made donations, thank you.
To those able to give and share our journalism with others, please Pay it Forward.
The Free Press has shared COVID-19 stories free of charge because we believe everyone deserves access to trusted and critical information during the pandemic.
While we stand by this decision, it has undoubtedly affected our bottom line.
After nearly 150 years of reporting on our city, we don’t want to stop any time soon. With your support, we’ll be able to forge ahead with our journalistic mission.
If you believe in an independent, transparent, and democratic press, please consider subscribing today.
We understand that some readers cannot afford a subscription during these difficult times and invite them to apply for a free digital subscription through our Pay it Forward program.
Updated on Thursday, March 14, 2019 at 9:54 AM CDT: Replaces photo