Changing the conversation on downtown NB

Dear Editor

Recent reports in North Battleford media shared the story of a person who spoke to North Battleford city council about being harassed, chased, and physically grabbed by a person or a number of people in downtown North Battleford.

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No person should ever be the victim of any type of harassment or unwanted physical contact.

“Causing a disturbance” is a criminal offence under section 175 of Canada’s Criminal Code. This section covers fighting, screaming, shouting, swearing, singing, using insulting or obscene language, impeding, loitering, or obstructing another person in a public place. Section 175 was interpreted by the Supreme Court of Canada in a 1992 case titled R v Lohnes. The wording of the section does not mean that doing these things in a public place is automatically a criminal offence. When these actions become criminal is a question for police, lawyers, and the courts to decide.

Violently grabbing a person or aggressively reaching inside their jacket without that person’s consent is also a criminal offence. Those things should not be tolerated by the RCMP or our city’s leadership, and people should not feel ignored when they are victims of crime downtown. People should feel safe when they are anywhere in our city.

There is obviously a stark difference between criminal behaviour like assaulting another person, and non-criminal behaviour that might be seen as undesirable or annoying – things like peacefully asking another person for spare change, sitting on a public bench, or standing on a public sidewalk.

There has been concerning online and media commentary connecting this recent story with our city’s panhandling bylaw, reference to individuals congregating downtown as “street people,” or broad implications that pushing people who are living with poverty or addictions out of the downtown core and “somewhere else” should be the preoccupation of our elected officials. It is time to change the channel on this type of approach.

We have organizations in the Battlefords that continue to work to improve the situation in our downtown for everyone.

The rooming house being built by the Battlefords Indian and Métis Friendship Centre is an intelligent initiative cited by the mayor in his comments to media that will alleviate homelessness and issues arising from addictions by providing a safe, warm, home for eight citizens of our community every night. The Lighthouse Serving the Battlefords is another organization doing irreplaceable work housing many people and reducing pressure on the RCMP, Sask Health, and Social Services. We must recognize the economic and social benefits these programs bring to our business community, our downtown core, and to our city as a whole. Leaders and community members must stand up for these organizations when they are threatened by short-sighted cuts.

Encouraging the growth and proper funding of organizations that work to alleviate poverty, lessen the impact of addictions, provide stable housing, and increase income security will create longer-term and more effective solutions to these issues. These types of interventions are proven to cost less for taxpayers than healthcare, police, or jails filling the gap. Although we pay more for policing than most other Saskatchewan cities, foot patrols cannot be everywhere and observe everything that is occurring. It is also worth noting that the cost to imprison one person in a provincial jail in Saskatchewan is $62,000 annually or $170 per day. What good could non-profit agencies do with that level of funding for their clients?

As someone who works every day downtown, it is non-negotiable that people feel safe in the downtown core and that violent or predatory behaviour is not tolerated. As North Battleford continues to revitalize its downtown, there will be more pedestrian traffic in the area and more interaction with people experiencing poverty, homelessness, and addiction who spend their days there. It is no answer to criminalize people or fine people who cannot pay fines. North Battleford must continue to approach this issue in an economically and socially responsible way.

Benedict Feist

North Battleford

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