Island municipalities develop community safety and well-being plan

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LITTLE CURRENT – Although the development and adoption of Community Safety and Well Being (CSWB) plans is required by legislation for municipalities in Ontario, available data and stakeholder input reveal the need for a more collaborative approach by Island municipalities and service providers to address the four priority risks identified through stakeholder engagement sessions facilitated by Investigative Solutions Network Inc. (ISN). 

As of January 1, 2019 the province of Ontario legislated all communities in the province to create and adopt a CSWB plan, working in partnership with a multi-sectoral advisory committee that includes representation from the police service board and other local service providers in health care, education, community and social services and children and youth services. 

Following 10 community engagement sessions that were conducted with community agencies, municipal government representatives and members of the public, Island communities were able to create a collective plan. Eight of nine Island municipalities took part in planning and stakeholder engagement sessions facilitated by ISN. Cockburn Island chose not to participate. Some 13 local representatives from the health care, social services, police and education sectors participated in group consultations or one-on-one interviews with ISN and 23 people attended the public consultation.

The resulting plan was approved by the Town of Northeastern Manitoulin and the Islands (NEMI) council at its July 13 council meeting. Other municipalities are still reviewing the draft plan. Alton Hobbs, chief administrative officer for Assiginack, said the draft has been circulated to council but he hasn’t received any comments yet. He expects it will go through as is and any changes would be “fairly minor in nature.” 

Mental health and addictions, domestic violence, housing and seniors were identified as the top four priorities for Manitoulin Island. The areas often overlap. For example, a 2018 enumeration of homelessness in Manitoulin-Sudbury prepared for the Manitoulin-Sudbury District Services Board (DSB) noted that 55 percent of those living with absolute homelessness reported mental health challenges. Another report by the Canadian Mental Health Association stated that people with mental health issues were more likely to be victims of violence. 

“Each community is unique and different,” said Northeast Town Mayor Al MacNevin, but services and service agencies are shared across Island municipalities.

It is hoped that existing working committees can be expanded to incorporate multi-sector planning. Existing services and programs within these sectors and agencies have already collaborated on initiatives that include rapid response situation tables, mental health crisis response teams and multi-sector leadership tables. 

According to ISN, the goal of a CWSB plan is to address the root causes of crime and complex social issues by focusing on social development, prevention and risk intervention. The highest priority risk for Manitoulin Island was identified as mental health and addictions. Local data indicated that all partnering communities have been experiencing crisis occurrences as a result of mental health and addictions to some degree. Over the last five years, OPP calls for service from the Espanola-Manitoulin detachment area indicate that approximately 43 percent of calls for service were directly associated with the Mental Health Act. Within the same five-year period, approximately 50 percent of calls were drug and alcohol related offences. 

The Expositor special supplement, Out of the Shadows, published June 23, took an in-depth look at Manitoulin’s opioid crisis: “According to coroner records, seven people died on Manitoulin Island last year from opioid related causes. That’s nearly four times higher than in 2018 and 2019. In the Sudbury and Manitoulin areas over the past year, there were nearly four times more drug-related deaths than those from COVID-19.” 

Paramedics are responding to an increasing number of suspected opioid overdoses, from five in 2018 to 48 in 2020. In the first four months of 2021, paramedics had already attended to 19 suspected opioid overdoses in the District of Manitoulin. Island paramedics have administered naloxone, the overdose reversal drug, 13 times since 2018.

These are just statistics for opioids. Cocaine and other drugs have also been found on the Island. Substance use, especially alcohol, has increased across the country since the beginning of the pandemic. Mental health issues of anxiety and depression are increasing as well. 

“Municipalities generally don’t have access to data for healthcare or mental health,” said NEMI Mayor Al MacNevin. “The only information I get on overdoses is when a community member tells me or it’s printed in the paper,” he said.

The Manitoulin-Espanola OPP detachment recently implemented a mobile crisis program where a social service worker and an OPP officer work in partnership when responding to calls for service related to the Mental Health Act. The plan recommends engaging more partners in this initiative to ensure residents from all eight communities are receiving the same services and recommends including additional agencies from the police sector and heath care sector across Island communities. It also identified a need for increased localized data sharing between sectors and communities. 

Domestic violence was identified as the number two priority risk, with approximately 41.6 percent of OPP calls for service being domestic disputes over the past five years; 25.5 percent of them were family disputes. A March 24, 2021 Expositor story shared statistics from Manitoulin Northshore Victim Services (MNVS), which showed a 60 percent increase in the numbers of people it had served in relation to incidents of domestic violence. Overall numbers of people helped between 2019 and 2020 only showed growth of nine percent, from 187 calls in 2019 to 204 in 2020. There were 80 domestic occurrence calls in 2020, which MNVS Executive Director Tanya Wall said was consistent with other groups that respond to domestic violence. 

Housing may be a somewhat surprising choice as a priority risk for community safety and well-being on Manitoulin but there are a number of homeless persons here and others are at risk. In fact, there were two homeless accommodation sites created on the Island last year, one for men and one for women. Manitoulin Family Resources was concerned about the ‘hidden homeless’ population with the initial stay-at-home order at the start of the COVID-19 lockdown and turned to the DSB for help with the issue. 

DSB’s homelessness report indicated 171 homeless adults, youth and dependent children in Sudbury-Manitoulin in 2018. Of these, 51 percent of the respondents were from Manitoulin Island. More than half were considered hidden homeless, which refers to people who don’t have their own apartment or house or whose home is unsafe for them to return to. “They are largely invisible to service providers,” the report said. Roughly 18 percent were considered ‘absolutely homeless’ and the rest were at risk of homelessness. 

According to the report, “The top six reasons for homelessness given by people living with absolute and hidden homelessness were inability to pay rent or mortgage, unsafe housing conditions, addictions, abuse by spouse or partner, illness or medical condition and conflict with spouse or partner. The primary reasons given by people living with absolute homelessness were housing related–inability to pay rent or mortgage or unsafe housing conditions.”

The final priority risk was identified as seniors. By 2021, there will be about 3,650 adults 65 years and older living in Manitoulin District, accounting for 26.5 percent of the total population. By 2031 that number grows to 4,660 and by 2037, seniors will account for more than 35 percent of the population when their numbers reach approximately 4,900. 

Plan activities should address social isolation, caregiver support and elder abuse prevention as well as wellness programs and the provision of early interventions for vulnerable seniors. 

Mayor MacNevin is cautiously optimistic about the plan. Part of the problem is all of the services dealing with the priority issues like mental health, addictions, housing or domestic abuse are all provided by different sectors and smaller municipalities aren’t part of that process, he said. “When they announced that CSWB plans had to be put into place by municipalities I was surprised. Our knowledge of what goes on with these issues on a daily basis is fairly low as we don’t directly provide any of these services.”

The report offers some interesting approaches for committees but he’s not sure how they are going to come together, the mayor added. “The service agencies are independent, arms length from anything the municipality does but the plan mandate and accountability is on municipalities. This report seems pretty ambitious for the next five years.” He’s concerned about the ability to coordinate sub-committees and meetings with the service providers who have the knowledge and experience to ensure the plan is successful. “It would be great if we can make that happen but it’s certainly going to require the cooperation of many groups, commitment and time.”

There are lessons to be learned from COVID-19, he said. Throughout the pandemic municipalities have worked collaboratively with various sectors. “We’ve had actual weekly or bi-weekly meetings with the healthcare sector. They didn’t need our expertise in providing care or vaccinations or testing but they needed the infrastructure or finances or volunteers to carry out the vaccinations. So, we were able as a municipality to offer some things to the sector that they needed.” 

The real benefit the Island experienced from COVID-19 was the ability to pull together, he said. “We put some pressure on the federal and provincial governments. We don’t get the services that we need here. Our services are hubbed in Sudbury and it’s difficult for a lot of people to take advantage of that. I think it’s really helped us understand the shortfall across the Island in terms of services.”