After months of heated debate — between members of council, multiple levels of government and the general public — city council voted in favour of selling the Vimy Arena to Manitoba Housing for $1 on Thursday, making way for an addictions treatment centre to be built in St. James.
The motion barely passed. It needed two thirds of council, 11 votes, to pass, regardless of the fact that two councillors, Jeff Browaty (North Kildonan) and Russ Wyatt (Transcona), were absent. It got 11 votes.
Three councillors were opposed: Coun. Shawn Dobson (St. Charles), whose ward includes the arena, Coun. Ross Eadie (Mynarski) and Coun. Jason Schreyer (Elmwood-East Kildonan).
Dobson attempted to stall the sale for 60 days, putting forth a motion to re-appraise the value of the arena and its adjoining land, but his motion was defeated by a 12-2 vote.
At stake are plans to build the Bruce Oake Recovery Centre, which the Oake family wanted to open to help people grappling with addictions. Bruce Oake died of a heroin overdose in 2011.
The centre would start as a 50-bed, long-term treatment facility for men and eventually expand to include women, or partner with a women's facility, the Oakes have said.
Asked how he felt after the vote, Darcy Oake exhaled a sigh of relief.
"It’s so hard to explain. I feel like Bruce, my older brother, is looking down with a grin on his face," Oake said, his voice breaking. "We pulled it off."
Tensions rose at Thursday's meeting of council as dozens gathered in the gallery at city hall to hear arguments for and against the arena sale. There was occasional shouting, interruptions and tears shed by at least one delegate on the floor.
Darcy Oake spoke as a delegate and pressed that if construction of the treatment centre was delayed, an estimated 20 lives could be lost within two months, in keeping with recent statistics about people who die due to addictions.
"This is not going to turn the area into the Walking Dead," he said, refuting critics' claims about the safety of bringing a treatment centre to a residential area.
"No matter what the outcome is today, we will not stop getting people treatment."
According to statistics provided to council, the Winnipeg Fire and Paramedics Service responded to 1,269 calls about overdoses and poisoning in 2013, compared with 1,932 calls in 2017.
Every councillor rose to address the issue, except speaker Devi Sharma, who was busy chairing the committee.
Mayor Brian Bowman said delaying the arena sale would be purely political and he didn't want to be part of tactics that could lead to lives being lost.
Coun. Matt Allard (St. Boniface) said the choice was moral, not political or ideological.
During his speech, Darcy Oake asked council members to "vote from the heart."
Minutes later, Independent MLA for Assiniboia, Steven Fletcher, who also spoke as a delegate, albeit against the sale, asked them to "vote with your head."
Delegate Greg Hammond, president of the Friends of Sturgeon Creek neighbourhood group, said he believed the long-term public health of the community would be better served by installing more green space and recreational facilities in place of the Vimy Arena.
After voting, Hammond described being disappointed by the outcome, but is still willing to work with the Oake family.
"We think we need to have the long-term view here that these two goals – of preserving parkland and addiction recovery or rehabilitation – are not mutually exclusive," Hammond said.
The Oakes have previously said they intend to keep public greenspace around the treatment centre.
Before the Bruce Oake Recovery Centre is built, developers will need to apply for rezoning approval, which would require a further public hearing. The Oakes plan to start a capital fundraising campaign shortly and hope to have shovels in the ground by summer, Darcy Oake said.
"We’re still going to have to go into the community and explain everything we’ve been doing. So there’s still an opportunity for people to voice their opinions and hopefully we can teach or help spread the knowledge and information to the people who originally opposed the idea," he said. "Show them that this is actually a good idea and it’s saving lives."
Jessica Botelho-Urbanski covers the Manitoba Legislature for the Winnipeg Free Press.
Updated on Thursday, January 25, 2018 at 5:59 PM CST: Updates with vote outcome
6:36 PM: Adds photo
7:34 PM: Writethrough
9:03 PM: Fixes detail about speaker