Beyond the shocking headlines

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Five years later, North Central is still living down its reputation as ‘Canada’s worst neighbourhood’

Shawn Mehler
Contributor

Five years ago this January, Macleans magazine exposed one of Regina’s largest social and economic issues: the North Central neighbourhood. Jonathon Gatehouse covered a grim and altogether disturbing portrait of inner-city Regina, declaring it “Canada’s worst neighbourhood.”

Controversy erupted instantly, as citizens of Regina and even Saskatchewan felt the need to rebut the laying bare of the problems in our backyard. The offence rung deep enough to even see our mayor, Pat Fiacco, place copies of the January 2007 issue of Macleans in a wood chipper.

How could this exist within a mere 15-minute drive? I eventually decided to contact the Regina police and requested to go on a ride-along, to try and get a firsthand look at this area instead of just reading stats and hearing people’s thoughts on the matter.

The majority of the six-hour ride-along was spent in North Central. The crack houses, gang members, prostitutes, violent crimes, and extreme poverty described by Gatehouse were all still intact, but there was more to it than that. Since the police frequently visit North Central, most of the officers were actually able to develop relationships with the citizens, including the ones they arrest. I was intrigued to watch how the officer I was with handled himself.

Early into the evening, we received a complaint regarding a domestic dispute in the North Central area. Three police cruisers pulled up. The people inside were refusing to co-operate. Eventually, the police had to kick in the door. I followed them into the house, stepping over several used needles and other drug paraphernalia lying on the floor. The distressed woman who made the call was talking with the officers. Instead of hitting the police and losing all control, they sat face-to-face and discussed the situation calmly.

This moment brought conditions in North Central into sharp relief. The problems of the community, the drugs and the violence, coexist with people who want North Central to become a strong, vibrant, healthy community. It took a simple conversation on a urine-stained couch to truly understand this reality.

Fiacco was more than willing to have a one-on-one discussion about the Macleans article and inner city Regina. Before we sat down, Fiacco showed me the view from the City Hall window and described several infrastructure and building projects that were in the works or soon to be in the works, the major one being the proposed tearing down of Mosaic Stadium and building the development of low income housing.  It was apparent initially that Fiacco is very optimistic about Regina’s future.

For Fiacco, the reality of the conditions in North Central really comes down to a matter of perspective. For example, Fiacco explained how the article criticized a boarded-up house in North Central. However, he said, Gatehouse failed to realize the reason it was boarded up was because it was formerly a drug house – and, where parents a decade ago wouldn’t have let their children near the house, kids today play on the street nearby.

“We are directing 30 percent of the cities growth to happen within our inner city. Construction will not start until 2013, and the facility won’t be ready until 2016,” said Fiacco.

“We still have a long way to go,” he said, explaining how the City is trying to foster co-operation on these issues. He also described several projects that were done with the federal and provincial governments in attempts to focus on education, employment, and housing. Even before the article had been released, City Hall had been working on initiatives in these areas.

“We will continue to do what we were doing,” he said, before addressing the five-year-old article with the same criticism he’d levelled at it since day one: the people of North Central didn’t deserve it.

“People live there. This is their home,” Fiacco said. “It should not be based on the worst neighbourhood – that is not being very Canadian.”

Shawn Fraser, the executive director of Carmichael Outreach in Regina, found some positives with the Macleans article, stating that it’s done a lot in the last five years to raise people’s awareness of some of these issues in the neighbourhood. Although the article may have offended many people, he said, it did spark a lot of citizens in the community to explore ways they could help and begin to see change – and forced citizens of Regina to confront what are still some uncomfortable truths.

“There is still an us and them in Regina. The divide between the North Central and the rest of us, it is almost like two different cultures,” said Fraser. “Poverty is so concentrated in North Central.”

For Rebecca Cochrane, the development director for Souls Harbour in Regina, an issue that’s impacted North Central in the last five years and compounded the issues in the Macleans article has been affordable housing in the city. “Affordable housing is definitely causing a greater homelessness issue in the city,” she said.

Saskatchewan has a booming economy, but that’s led to a higher cost of living. Cochrane explained how many people moving to Regina from all over stay in shelters because they cannot find places to live. “A lot of times what people can afford is very low quality housing, so they might move into a house in North Central that has not been well maintained,” said Cochrane.

There is no rent control, making rental properties very difficult to afford in the city – even properties with very bad living conditions. Cochrane also talked how solving these problems does not take place over night and there is no quick fix solution

Often, she said, addiction only becomes an issue in a person’s life after these economic burdens take place. “We have had an addiction program for the last 10 years, so we see that side of things,” she said..

With hindsight, it’s not hard to see why. People involved with the community don’t deny the community has problems. But they hope the last five years worth of work has brought them closer to solutions.

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