A few years ago, people were complaining about downtown North Battleford being isolated, abandoned and run down. With effort led by former Mayor Ian Hamilton and the creation of the Downtown Business Improvement District in 2013, the city spent a lot of money repairing downtown city infrastructure. Pedestrian-friendly features like benches were installed and new businesses have been attracted back to the downtown core. Downtown North Battleford now has a new movie theatre, a new big-box store, and a number of new restaurants and shops.
Apparently though, a vocal minority has only now become aware of a new fact: North Battleford has a lot of citizens who live with poverty, addictions and homelessness. This vocal minority now wants certain people to stop sitting on the public benches downtown. They say downtown would be better off without the benches, which are meant for people who need somewhere to sit down – just not “those” people. It is a nasty thing to suggest.
Mayor Ryan Bater, a number of city councillors, and S/Sgt Darcy Woolfitt of the RCMP have publicly offered thoughtful, sensible comments on the issue of public benches and more generally on poverty in downtown North Battleford. Their comments acknowledge the real issues: poverty, homelessness, addictions, mental illness and physical disabilities faced by many people in our community. Our leaders have also argued that removing benches will not solve the underlying, serious issues with child and adult poverty in this area – issues which are disproportionately faced by Indigenous people in the Battlefords and on surrounding First Nations.
Despite our leaders’ compassionate comments, there has been a steady chatter about public benches being the problem. The comments are nothing new. At one point the enemy was panhandling, later it was the liquor store, and now it is the benches.
But the underlying criticism is not really about the panhandling, the liquor store or the benches – the real issue is that people are being forced to come face-to-face with poverty, addiction, and mental health issues outside their businesses selling fancy clothes or specialty cookies. These issues are not unique to the Battlefords, however our community statistically faces a higher rate of these issues than many other comparably-sized Canadian cities.
Like anyone else, I don’t want anyone yelling in my face, pushing me or swearing at me downtown. But such occurrences are very rare and already illegal. People sitting on benches and visiting with friends, or calmly asking another person for spare change remain legal and protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
I have worked downtown directly across from the public library for four years. There are sometimes people sitting or walking outside our office that are intoxicated, who sit on benches for a long period of time, or who even step inside our business to ask about using the phone. We often see people from our window interacting with CSOs or being arrested by the RCMP.
It is not my intent to write from a place of moral superiority, but my first thought when I encounter people who are struggling in our community is usually gratitude for my blessings and a sense of responsibility, rather than hatred toward the people who are suffering, or an urge to take away the simple comfort and dignity of a place for them to sit down in our shared public spaces.
I, for one, would like to see our community move past the strategies that have been failing for the last few decades in addressing poverty and crime in the Battlefords. To paraphrase Zellie Imani, a prominent US activist: ‘the safest communities don’t have the most cops, they have the most resources.’
The Battlefords have no dedicated anti-poverty strategy. There are a number of things we can do as active citizens – call a local MLA like Larry Doke or Herb Cox and ask them why the government made damaging changes to the rental housing supplement or Sask Assured Income for People With Disabilities, make a donation to The Lighthouse or Battlefords Indian & Métis Friendship Centre, which both provide shelter and help to vulnerable people downtown, advocate for a municipal anti-poverty strategy – or simply say hello, buy someone in need a coffee or a sandwich, and act like a human being.