It is sometimes said that the measure of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable people and, if that is the case, society in Thompson, Manitoba and Canada is not measuring up right now when it comes to residents displaced by the Sept. 23 fire at the north tower of Forest View Suites on Princeton Drive.
One of those residents, Cara Gulick, appeared before Thompson city council Sept. 30 asking for someone to do something to help people like her who have been left homeless and without even the opportunity to collect their furniture and possessions. That the appearance of Gulick, an Indigenous woman, came on Orange Shirt Day, a remembrance of the sufferings Canada’s residential school system caused for its Indigenous pupils while and long after they were forced to attend these institutions far from their homes, only made her message more poignant and pitiful.
As Gulick pointed out, conditions at the former Princeton Towers have been deteriorating for months, but no one was able to do anything until the fire forced city officials’ hand and led them to shut down the building, which has about 130 apartments, and forbid people from living there until the owners – who owe RBC $23 million – make repairs and improvements to ensure the building meets all of the city’s safety and fire regulations.
It is probably fair to say that many of the residents of the north tower didn’t live there because it was a great building. The towers have been a hot spot for crime since well before the beginning of this year. Many of them were probably there because they didn’t have many, or any, other options, since apartments there were by no means the cheapest in the city. Now that the north tower has been shut down, those options have been reduced by one, or eliminated entirely. Gulick, a single mother, through no fault of her own, is forced to leave her daughter with family in one residence while she sleeps on a couch at a friend’s place. Even if she could find another place to live, she would have very little to furnish it with, since residents, to this point, have only been given an hour to go and retrieve some of their belongings and can’t remove their furniture even if they were allowed in for longer, because the building’s elevator is probably not operational, as has been the case, at least periodically, for months.
Back when safety and fire code violations were piling up, the city was likely reluctant to shut down the building because doing so would make 180 or so people homeless. But maybe if action had been taken then, the owners would have taken threats of action more seriously and tried to make the building, if not exactly liveable, then at least not a hazard to human health. If they had been unable to comply, tenants might at least have had the opportunity to move out in an orderly fashion. Mayor Colleen Smook and city manager Anthony McInnis assured Gulick on Monday night that they were making efforts to help tenants out and there’s no reason to doubt that they are. Unfortunately, for people whose lives have been turned upside down by a catastrophe that was unpredictable, though not likely unforeseeable, given the state of the north tower, words don’t put a roof over their heads or help them tell their children when they’ll be able to sleep in their own bed in their own room with their own belongings again. The former residents of the north tower who don’t know where they’re going to live this winter are not equipped with the tools to resolve this situation but their elected officials, be they municipal, provincial or federal, are. Whether they are also equipped with the will to make things right remains to be seen.