Not even a triple murder in the hood, as locals call this part of inner-city Regina, attracts this type of attention. The chief of police is here. So is the mayor. And two MPs, Liberal Ralph Goodale and Conservative Andrew Scheer. The local MLA has also made an appearance, as has the city councillor and reporters from the local newspaper and television station.
They’re all at a small community centre in the heart of North Central—a neighbourhood that has variously been described as Third World and the Mississippi of the North— for the chance to tell Maclean’s magazine that this is not in fact Canada’s worst neighbourhood, as it was dubbed in a recent story outlining the staggering crime, poverty and drug abuse problems here. And for over two hours they stream in to have their say: parents who are happy to raise their kids here, children who are part of boxing and running programs, police who say crime is falling and politicians who talk about improvements in housing, employment and education.
At the centre of this show of force is Pat Fiacco, the populist, affable mayor of Regina who has a habit of describing himself as a “glass-half-full kind of guy.” (Linder the pretext of promising a Maclean’s reporter a ride-about to see the improvements in North Central, he has brought him straight here for a meeting with “a few people.”) “A headline that reads ‘Rotten Regina’ is a problem if you’re someone in my position, or anyone,” Fiacco said earlier.
Like most who talk about the Maclean’s story here, he prefaces his remarks by saying it was factually correct, and acknowledges there are some very real problems in North Central. But they are problems, he says, that the community is tackling with some results since he took power six years ago. Overall crime dropped 25 per cent between 2001 and 2005 (although Regina has been at the top of the national crime rankings for nine of the past 10 years), 43 new homes have been built, and 652 inspected to see if they meet basic living standards (similar details were reported in the Maclean’s story). In 2002, three levels of government and community leaders joined together to develop a plan of action for North Central, says Fiacco. “It’s not the worst neighbourhood in Canada,” he says. “It isn’t.”
Despite the public show of affection for North Central at the meeting, there are still many, particularly in the Aboriginal community, who say things are not improving—and that the claims of civic leaders amount to hot air. Inside one of the neighbourhood’s countless tiny clapboard homes, Ted Caldwell says the situation is worse than ever. Until last year, he was one of the key figures controlling the drug trade in North Central (family and health problems from cocaine abuse convinced him to quit). “The gangs are more organized and people keep getting poorer,” says Caldwell, an Aboriginal. The politicians, he says, “don’t have any idea what it’s like to get by here every day.”
Driving through the ice-packed streets of her neighbourhood, Rosalind Caldwell, Ted’s sister, points out countless “drug houses” and young girls she says are prostitutes, though they look impossibly young—maybe 12. Her street is called Kiddie Alley, she says, because that’s where the girls can be found at night. The social ills are deep-rooted, and what’s being offered are “band-aid solutions,” says Rosalind. “It is Canada’s worst neighbourhood.” What North Central really needs are tangible things like a legal aid clinic, a community food bank, a welfare office, jobs for Aboriginals and, most importantly, an urban reserve that would let community residents deal with the problems on their terms, she says.
Urban reserves exist in cities across Saskatchewan, but not in North Central, and not in Regina. Critics say the city has dragged its feet on the issue, but Fiacco says only two proposals have come across his desk, and he’s approved them both and passed them on to the federal government for approval. City council will vote next week on a North Central urban reserve, he says.
What’s lacking in the city’s approach is a dialogue with Aboriginals in the community, says Jim Holmes, a mayoral candidate who ran against Fiacco in last October’s election. “This city council has been aware of the issues, but what’s missing is a willingess to work with people in the community and really listen to them,” he says. Last week, Fiacco invited local Aboriginal chiefs to City Hall to discuss urban issues (a meeting that was in the works for three months, not a result of the Maclean’s story, he says—although it was his first such City Hall sit-down during six years in office).
Chad Moats, a local blogger who covers city politics, moved out of the inner city in April because his two young kids couldn't play in their yard without finding condoms and needles. Improvements have been piecemeal, and the pool of money for community groups is being spread increasingly thin, Moats says. “When the mayor gets pressure from the public or media, he does a few things, but there haven’t been any real concrete measures.” Fiacco says there have been no cuts in North Central or the inner core—a far cry from the increased funding community advocates say their neighbourhood needs.
Still, the most pressing concern in North Central, especially on days like this when the temperature dips below -30°C at night, is housing. “It’s extremely bad,” says Garson Hunter, the director of the University of Regina’s Social Policy Research Unit. The 43 new houses the city mentions are nothing compared to the larger problem, he says. Although the federal government is also to blame, he says the problem “hasn’t been our mayor’s focus.” Despite making some headway, the city has also been opposed to putting in place a landlord licensing bylaw that advocates have been championing for years. Such an initiative would really address the slum landord problem, says Morris Eagle, the executive director of North Central’s Welfare Rights Centre. In an interview with Maclean’s, Fiacco says he’s now willing to look at the idea. Community groups also worry about city council’s past efforts to put a base property tax in place, which they say would shift the tax burden onto areas like North Central and discourage home ownership.
Fiacco acknowledges there’s plenty of work to be done, but adds there’s little he can do without considerable support from higher levels of government—the result of a fiscal imbalance affecting cities across Canada. But on this night in North Central, with a packed house of politicians and local leaders, the conversation seems much more focused on wounded civic pride than real solutions to North Central’s daunting problems.
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