When it comes to the results of a community safety survey that more than 2,200 Thompsonites filled out in July and August, Mayor Colleen Smook’s quote from a press release was right: there aren’t many surprises.
It may be unexpected to see exactly how many of the respondents say they or someone they know has been the victim of a crime within the past two years, or how many have plans to leave Thompson within the next two years, but the general message should sound familiar. Thompson isn’t exactly a place that everybody wants to live in anymore.
Some of the reasons for this have nothing to do with public safety. Thompson is fairly small, and although it may have more amenities than some other Canadian cities of its size, due to its position as the Hub of the North, servicing numerous outlying communities, there are a lot of services it lacks, particularly in the medical industry, as anyone who’s ever needed to be referred to a specialist can attest. It’s remote, with the nearest larger cities being eight hours away, whether you’re headed south towards Winnipeg or southwest to Prince Albert and then Saskatoon. And, of course, it’s cold enough that vehicle and jet engine manufacturers use it as a base to test the ability of their products to withstand frigid temperatures. The latter of these two factors are impossible to change and the first one well, nobody’s holding their breath on greatly improved medical services, even if the provincial government does have a plan to try to bring medical services and procedures closer to where people live, rather than having so many of them travel to Winnipeg for them.
Those facts about Thompson are inescapable, and for some people, a deal-breaker. There’s nothing we can do about those.
When it comes to public safety, however, there is at least the possibility that changes can be made to improve the city’s fortunes.
Crime and the perception of the city as a per-capita hotbed for it are not Thompson’s only non-geographical problems. The fact that Vale, which once employed more than 4,000 people in the city, is now at about one-fifth that number of workers and planning layoffs to make the employee headcount even lower, doesn’t help. Of course, nickel prices could shoot through the roof as demand for it grows alongside the manufacture of lithium batteries for electric vehicles but no one here has any control over that so it’s not an area to which the city government can or should devote too much time and attention, at least until they’re sure it is happening.
Making everyone feel – and more importantly, actually be – safer is a worthwhile goal, but it isn’t going to be easy to achieve. The roots of much of the petty crime in this city – public drinking and drunkenness, drunken fistfights, loitering, causing disturbances – are linked not to the fact that there’s a new liquor store, or the fact that there was an old one, or the fact that it’s too easy to walk to, but to the nature of alcohol and alcohol addiction, the fact that it can cause people to be violent, to lose their judgment and get behind the wheel of a car, to not just crave it but to need it just to make it through the day. Not every drug is like that. It doesn’t appear that people are waiting outside Thompson’s two cannabis stores when they open their doors in the morning, that there are any more people hanging around outside smoking marijuana than there were before the drug was legalized.
Outright prohibition probably isn’t the answer. It didn’t work in the United States and Canada in the 1920s and 1930s, and it doesn’t prevent alcohol-induced crime in Northern Manitoba’s dry First Nations, thanks to bootleggers and superjuice. But the city does need to do something about “the downtown issue,” as it’s euphemistically been known, to address part of the public safety picture, as well as random criminal acts, whether they’re garage break-ins, arsons or stabbings.
The public safety strategy, when it’s finished, isn’t going to be a magic bullet. But the process of creating it, by bringing various groups together for discussions of Thompson’s often very evident problems, should be of assistance in helping the city develop a holistic way of dealing with problems. Police can’t arrest their way to making Thompson a safer city, and politicians can’t legislate all danger away. But hopefully, having a range of organizations that deal with alcohol and drug addiction, youth, homelessness and other other subjects working together toward a common goal with awareness of what the other parties are doing and how those actions affect their partners will help illuminate a path in which some of Thompson’s public safety problems can be addressed at their roots and hopefully prevented or reduced. It isn’t likely that Thompson will ever be the safest community in Manitoba, but it could be one in which much of the population isn’t victimized by criminals or making short-term plans to get out of the city permanently.