Northern Ontario’s municipalities call for addictions, mental health ‘centre of excellence’

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ONTARIO – Northern Ontario municipal leaders are calling on the province to create a made-in-the-North solution to deal with the opioid crisis, increase in mental health issues and rising rates of homelessness.

The Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association (NOMA), the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities (FONOM) and the Northern Ontario Service Deliverers Association (NOSDA) met jointly with the provincial government on January 25 at the virtual Rural Ontario Municipal Association (ROMA) conference to discuss the crisis of homelessness, mental health and the opioid crisis. 

“Geography and distance play a significant role whether you’re in Northeastern Ontario or Northwestern Ontario,” FONOM President Danny Whalen told The Expositor. “The fact that the three of us have collaborated on an agreement that ‘this is what needs to be done and this is how it should be done,’ speaks to its importance and the province looks favourably on those type of collaborations.”

The three organizations shared with government a research paper written by the Northern Policy Institute (NPI), ‘Solving the Homelessness, Mental Health and Addictions Crisis in the North.’ The paper contained eight recommendations: provide long-term funding for capital repairs on community housing units; amend the Health Protection and Promotion Act, 1990 to define a ‘Northern service hub’ and provide additional funding to these hubs; establish a joint taskforce to collect data and intelligence on the underlying and systematic retention issues of healthcare professionals in Northern Ontario; support new and existing ‘housing first’ programs; support new and existing Indigenous culturally sensitive community housing facilities; establish a Northern Mental Health and Addictions Centre of Excellence to address the unique challenges of service and program delivery in Northern Ontario; contract a third-party operator for interfacility patient transfers to relieve the workload of paramedics; and establish mandated mobile crisis intervention teams in municipalities throughout Northern Ontario.

“We are extremely happy with the NPI report. We’re three organizations that cover the North, so it gets us all looking at the problem from the same direction. That’s what we need. This idea of NOSDA out doing one thing and NOMA and FONOM doing other things wasn’t working. Now we all look at the problem from the same angle,” said Mr. Whalen.

The organizations shared experiences from their own communities to paint a picture of what the mental health, addictions and homelessness crisis looks like and how it is affecting people in every community across Northern Ontario. 

“We raised the issue of perhaps expanding the capacity of the Northern Ontario School of Medicine (NOSM) in order to help alleviate the doctor shortage in the North,” Mr. Whalen said. That includes having all the supports that need to be in place for those students, including accommodations. “I think she (Minister of Health Christine Elliott) was receptive to discussing it further so that’s a good step.”

The issue of retention and recruitment of healthcare professionals is one that’s “close to our heart on the Island,” said Al MacNevin, mayor of Northeastern Manitoulin and the Islands and Manitoulin District representative at FONOM. “When people have grown up in the North and they get their education in the North, they are very familiar with what Northern Ontario is like.” 

NOSDA Chair Michelle Boileau asked the government to “recognize municipalities and NOSDA as a partner in our collective efforts to address the growing mental health and addiction challenges.” 

That means working to ensure the right resources are put in the right communities to reach people who need the resources where they live. “What happens in Greater Sudbury is not relevant to what we need here,” said Mayor MacNevin. “We need something different. We heard in the presentation from Northwestern Ontario, for example, of people in areas surrounding Thunder Bay that have to go for addiction treatment in Thunder Bay or fly to cities like Toronto because the resources aren’t there to help them (in their communities). They get through the program and then they are plunked back in their communities with no follow up or resources.” 

The same thing happens here, he said, adding he was pleased to hear of the upcoming mobile mental health and addictions pilot project under development on the Island. “We need more of that.”

Solicitor-General Sylvia Jones was also at the meeting, noted Mayor MacNevin. “They’re currently looking at models for the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) to have partnerships with either mental health or addictions trained staff that would be better at dealing with those issues.”

Some municipalities have already begun implementing their own community-based models. Temiskaming now has an agreement with Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) to attend mental health calls with an OPP officer and stay at the hospital. “You used to have to pay an officer to take someone to the hospital and stand at the door until they’re discharged,” Mr. Whalen said. “Having the trained individual there is what we need. Those are the resources that we have to start making better use of.”

The housing issue is unfolding in much the same way as the opioid crisis has, Mr. Whalen noted. It’s not just a big city problem but an “every town” problem, right across the province. “We talk about affordable housing shortages, but rentals play a big part in housing,” he said. 

“All of us on the Island know that it wasn’t just COVID that’s made it hard to find a place to live but it’s certainly made it worse,” said Mayor MacNevin. Rents are “off the map” for anyone on a service sector salary, so more affordable housing is needed. It was only a number of fortuitous events that has enabled the creation of 12 units in Little Current. “It’s no different in Thunder Bay, Timmins or Kapuskasing. There just isn’t enough affordable housing for people and the District Services Boards haven’t been funded to create any new affordable housing in a long time.” 

Indigenous people face unique challenges when it comes to housing but “the topic has always been a political football,” said NOMA President Wendy Landry. “A lot of our First Nations people do live in municipalities and are affected. Some who have moved to the municipalities or the larger centres out of their First Nations for different reasons are affected by this so there has to be a culturally sensitive or culturally appropriate approach to all of the policies when we move forward. There’s a lot of kids in care in our municipalities, in the child welfare system, who are ageing out and they’re looking for places to stay, there needs to be affordable housing across the board. When we talk about the housing crisis in the North, when we talk about the mental health and addiction problems in the North, they’re all overlapping in different ministries.”

Creation of a Northern service hub will help individuals find appropriate services in a timely manner, whether they’re homeless or experiencing mental health and addictions issues, Mr. Whalen said. When an individual has a question or problem there needs to be one service window that can send them to the relevant agency. “We said it before in our last delegation at the AMO (Association of Municipalities of Ontario) conference. I believe in push and repeat. We’ve been pushing this over and over again and I think we’re starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel as far as simplifying things for the client or individual in crisis, regardless of what the crisis is.” 

“Those were the kinds of things we were talking about,” Mayor MacNevin said. The meeting with multiple ministries will help this government understand, “that when we bring all these people together, this isn’t just in one part of Northern Ontario. It’s a shared experience, whether we’re in Northwestern Ontario or Northeastern Ontario.”