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Why an Ontario town with fewer than 6,000 people has OPP’s largest jail

Nestled between Winnipeg and Thunder Bay, Sioux Lookout appears to be a typical northern Ontario town.

It’s made up of a few roads and a newly minted roundabout. A hunting shop, a coffee spot and an LCBO fill out its downtown core.

The quiet municipality is home to just under 6,000 people and a railway stop served by the VIA Rail train between Toronto and Vancouver.

Yet, local officers in Sioux Lookout have the most detention cells of any Ontario Provincial Police detachment and the force makes around 4,000 arrests every year.

Much of the work police take on — backed by an army of overworked and underfunded local organizations — stems from Sioux Lookout’s status as Ontario’s hub of the north.

A lack of resources means there are many times cells in the OPP’s cells almost double as accommodation for often intoxicated people who have been left without any other option.

The town has a key northern hospital, a busy domestic airport, and a large Service Ontario location.

While fewer than 6,000 people live in the town year-round, more than 25,000 people rely on its hospital and other facilities to access basic necessities like health care, dental appointments and government services.

The local police commander says that, although only a small number of those who visit the town end up in cells, many of the arrests they make are people not from Sioux Lookout “who have nowhere else to go” other than police cells for their safety.

Henry Wall, CEO of the Kernora District Services Board, said Sioux Lookout has “always been a bit of a gathering place” throughout history.

“Services have been established there for people to come to us to Sioux Lookout, to fly into the community,” he said.

With thousands coming in and out of the town every month, local leaders say a lack of resources means people are falling through the cracks.

They add that First Nations communities — who they say have been failed for decades by provincial and federal governments — are the ones who feel the lack of resources the most.

Stretched local services, a lack of housing and the insidious drip of addiction mean local police end up responding to calls relating to alcohol again and again.

Insp. Karl Duewel has lived in Sioux Lookout for more than two decades and serves as the head of the local OPP detachment.

He has seen first-hand the trials and tribulations endured by those who visit Sioux Lookout for appointments.

“Unfortunately, this community deals with a high level of issues relating to mental health and addiction, the primary driver of that being alcohol here,” he told Global News.

Data shared with Global News by the OPP shows that Duewel’s officers made an average of 4,151 arrests annually between 2010 and 2023. That number peaked in 2018 when 5,293 people were kept in cells.

The vast majority of arrests in the town — 98 per cent — involve alcohol in some way, Duewel said.

Of the thousands who come to Sioux Lookout every year for appointments, local leaders say only a few fall through the cracks, drinking far too much and becoming trapped in a vicious cycle of addiction, homelessness and arrests.

“Some of them get arrested and held in the jail and most of that is due to intoxication,” said Darlene Angeconeb, chair of the Sioux Lookout Police Services Board.

“I’m not saying that everybody’s like that — there are a few people who are like that — (but) the number adds up through the year.”

Many fly in and out of Sioux Lookout to access vital services that are not available in their own communities, and when they do, the odds are stacked against them.

“This population, these communities, are on any measure of social determinants of health the most marginalized population in Ontario,” Sioux Lookout Mayor Doug Lawrance told Global News.

“Whether it be employment, education, access to health care, everything is deeply impacted by the failed federal and provincial policies relating to the residential school system, relating to the ’60 Scoop, chronic underfunding of First Nations in Canada.”

Matthew Hoppe, who heads up the Independent First Nations Alliance, agreed.

“We have a unique catchment area,” he said.

“We have a lot of people hurting at the community level, people making honest attempts to seek help and correct behaviours but also seek help and get healthy.”

Ontario NDP MPP Sol Mamakwa was born in Sioux Lookout and has watched the town over the years. He told Global News years of underfunding for First Nations communities and the north overall is driving people out and making historical problems worse.

“I’ve learned that’s how oppression and colonialism work for First Nations: it’s to get them out of the north,” Mamakwa said.

“But it is the municipality of Sioux Lookout that has to deal with these issues, whether it is addiction, whether it is mental health, whether it is overcrowding. … We use the police to take care of that, we don’t even try to address it (in an) upstream (way).”

A web of services that don’t quite connect, rigid rules at some local accommodations and hours upon hours after appointments with nothing to do combine and conspire to push some through the cracks.

“A lot of people come here, they travel through here or they stay here and there are the odd few who end up being stuck here and who may have addictions and a lot of it is due to alcohol,” Angecomb said.

“We know that the legacy of the Indian residential schools and the ’60s Scoop and all these things have brought the addictions about.”

Donald Morris, Chief of Big Trout Lake, said his community relies on Sioux Lookout for key services.

When people travel to the town they face a huge range of barriers, including cultural differences and issues with language and translation, he said. To help with language barriers, younger community members are sometimes sent along to act as translators and helpers.

“Escorts are beginning to be younger and younger and when you’re younger and younger, you get to experience access to what’s out there, which can have a downfall on you as a youth,” he told Global News.

“You see a substantial (amount) of alcohol, you are approached by people (asking if) you want to buy this and this and this. And you get caught in this system. This is where the officers, the police misinterpret seeing us all of a sudden, natives down south homeless, just being transient from one place to another.”

The potential to get swallowed by Sioux Lookout is significant, Hoppe said.

“Maybe (they) come down Monday, do their appointment Tuesday morning and unfortunately there are situations where they stay quite long,” he explained.

“Situations may arise from time to time where people meet up with friends when they shouldn’t be meeting up with friends and then situations escalate. It’s not that people intentionally try and take it as an opportunity to take advantage of the situation.”

Angecombe echoed Hoppe’s words, saying some coming to the town “might see relatives or friends on the street who pull them into addictions” during their time in Sioux Lookout.

“If they have a hard time saying no, then they have a hard time getting back into the shelter or the place where they are staying, which is usually the hostel,” she said.

Senior figures involved with policing, health care and non-profits interviewed by Global News listed unreliable public transport, massive distances between towns, changeable court dates, insufficient beds and housing and lack of access to smartphones as other issues faced by those who come to town.

Morris said the draw of Sioux Lookout can make it an exciting opportunity for people to visit. “We don’t have a liquor store in Big Trout, we don’t have any kind of restaurant — nothing,” he said. “We don’t have major stores that provide clothing brands and all that.”

The liquor store, in particular, can be connected with some of Sioux Lookout’s biggest struggles. Its relationship with the town’s troubles is so stark that closing the store for a day saw arrests drop by more than 50 per cent.

Between September 2022 and August 2023, a pilot project shut the local liquor store on both Sundays and Mondays every week. Local OPP said the number of calls they received plummeted.

On average through that period, police saw 61 per cent fewer calls on Sundays and Mondays and made 140 per cent fewer arrests. OPP said the downtown core, where the LCBO is situated, has been a focal point for both service calls and arrests.

A spokesperson for the LCBO told Global News the store would remain closed two days per week for the foreseeable future.

Mayor Lawrance said pilot closures of the LCBO had been a tangible success — but on days where it remained open, the problem reared its head again.

“We have worked with the LCBO,” he said, praising the rapid success the closures pilot had enjoyed.

“The following day, Tuesday, the calls for service were still down and then the rebound goes up and we have calls for service going back up.”

For those visiting the hub of the north, when things do go wrong, they unravel quickly.

“(If) you accidentally miss an appointment or you’re late going home, then you’re faced with the consequences of you missing your appointment or your accommodation is cut off,” Morris said.

“And that’s where we end up on the streets.”

Wall explained that some of the accommodation options offered in Sioux Lookout have dry policies that ban drinking of any kind which, in itself, can have the unintended effect of forcing people out.

“(It) is a bit of a foreign concept for a lot of people who go elsewhere to another community,” he said. “It’s not unusual to go out to eat and have a glass of wine or have something to drink, go back to your hotel and all is well. It’s not so for many First Nations. … Having alcohol will quite actually displace people onto the street, temporarily.”

Those then left without accommodation in a town with a large and transient homeless population can end up drinking more. Then, local police are called, and they end up being arrested and held overnight.

“There’s not a lot of places for people to go where they’re highly intoxicated where they’ll be accepted and allowed to go … this doesn’t sound good, but in a lot of ways that’s sometimes the safest place for them to be so they don’t freeze for death,” Insp. Duewel said.

Duewel estimates between five and 15 people are being held overnight in the force’s cells on any given day.

The next morning, when someone who has been arrested drunk the night before, a rigid system can leave them in a worse position than they were in before. Specifically, if they’ve missed a flight back home out of Sioux Lookout, they’re left with nowhere to stay and no way to get home.

Wall said that leads to people being “stuck” in Sioux Lookout, a town with a lot of “episodic or temporary homelessness.”

Mayor Lawrance said how long people stay depends.  

“It can vary from days to weeks to months to — for some — maybe years,” he said. “If you’re addicted to alcohol and what you want for your addiction is in Sioux Lookout, you stay there for a while.”

Without a flight arranged, it falls to First Nations communities or local support groups to book a replacement flight when they can. Trips from Sioux Lookout to the 30 northern communities it serves can cost more than $1,000 one way on short notice.

“That can be the problem with how rigidly the system can be set up: ‘Your flight’s at 8 a.m., Karl, you better be there, and if you don’t make it, it’s done,’” Duewel explained.

“That isn’t a very humane way to look at this issue. If we truly care, and I know most people do, then it is understanding this horrible cycle and then doing everything we can.”

The current system in Sioux Lookout is not working for anyone, local leaders agree.

It is far from the majority of the 25,00 people who come to the town for appointments every year who are being arrested and some of the statistics are people arrested and released again and again. The majority of people arrested see police “multiple” times the OPP said, with a few people who “get stuck in the cycle.”

But it doesn’t take many people falling through the cracks in a town the size of Sioux Lookout for resources to become strained.

“The people we’re referring to, those policing calls for service, is a small percentage — and it only needs to be a small percentage — that fall through the cracks of not having enough support,” Lawrance said.

Local leaders have not stayed silent on the issue, either. They say their calls have not seen meaningful action from Queen’s Park or Parliament Hill.

Documents obtained by Global News show the Town of Sioux Lookout has bombarded the Ministry of the Solicitor General and other provincial figures for years with hundreds of pages of data outlining the problem and requesting support.

Police have added a mental health clinician to some calls and the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority has been involved with a street outreach program.

But funding and meaningful support remains a severe barrier, officials say.

Angecombe said a bear clan was founded to hand out snack bags and hygiene bags during the pandemic for those on the streets; it’s one of several programs she talks about in the past tense.

“There was no funding for the bear clan, the street patrol program,” she said, adding the town needs a detox centre for alcohol addiction.

A spokesperson for the Ford government pointed out funding was already in place for some detox and sober beds in Sioux Lookout, co-located within an existing shelter.

“This centre currently is operating 16 safe sobering beds and six withdrawal management beds to help those struggling with alcohol addiction. Staff of the centre are working with the Ministry to open the remaining 15 supportive treatment beds,” the spokesperson said.

A spokesperson for the federal government said all governments were “working together to meet the health needs of Sioux Lookout and area residents,” pointing to existing relationships and funding agreements in the town.

“Canada is invested in providing health services to meet the needs of First Nations across Northern Ontario,” the spokesperson said.

In the absence of longer-term solutions, Sioux Lookout is relying on police to handle homelessness, addiction and alcoholism on its streets.

“It shouldn’t be the OPP’s job — I think the default is that it becomes the OPP’s job just because of the lack of additional resources that are provided in the area,” Hoppe said.

“The police do their best to deal with a situation, provide that safety net. I would like to think there are other opportunities and ways of how we can provide a better safety net that doesn’t include the police.”

Insp. Duewel agreed that “none of us are happy” with the status quo, where police — among the best-paid public-sector workers — are sent to arrest people who may need help from mental health and addiction specialists.

“We are a very expensive tool to try to deal with some of those social problems that we are not really equipped (for), that are not our purpose,” he said.

Mamakwa said neither the provincial nor the federal governments are paying attention to Sioux Lookout.

“They’re not putting enough resources to be able to bring back the services closer to home that are needed — whether it’s mental health, whether its access to healthcare,” he said.

“I think we’re too focused on the south a lot of times.”

Chief Morris also said provincial funding in particular is “very limited” and said he needed more funds to provide resources within his community that would allow people to get better care in Big Trout Lake, without having to fly to Sioux Lookout.

“In 1929, when Canada came here to sign a treaty with us, Ontario was at the table too,” he said. “So, where’s Ontario’s portion of the funding to provide better services on reserve?”

A spokesperson for the province said more fly-in services would only be possible after negotiations with the Ontario Medical Association.

“As of October 12th, the Ministry of Health is in negotiations with the OMA to determine the Physician Services Agreement, we look forward to continued discussions at the table with the OMA,” they said.”

This is the first story in a new series set in Sioux Lookout, Ont., titled Hub of the North. Over three features, the series will explore addiction, housing and long-term care in one of Northern Ontario’s most important communities.


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