No one at this week's District of Sault Ste Marie Social Services Administration Board specifically uttered the words "Defund the Police."
But global demands to retool the relationship between law enforcement and social service agencies, prompted by the Black Lives Matter movement, were clearly behind a last-minute addition to the agenda of Thursday night's DSSMSSAB agenda.
As SooToday's James Hopkin has reported, a local petition is calling for City Council to slash the Sault Ste. Marie Police Service budget by 10 per cent, or roughly $2.75 million, transferring the cash to Social Services.
"We will not be placated by a simple increase in the funding of social services," say organizers of the Defund SSM Police petition.
"Though this would be a great and most welcomed gesture, our first mission, like other petitioners in cities across the world, is the reallocation of funding from police to social services."
"We do not want to raise taxes – we want to use money that is already in the pot in a different way," say the local activists behind the petition.
However, Sault Ste. Marie's social services seem to be positioning for a more amicable approach.
The following is the full text of the resolution unanimously adopted Thursday night by the DSSMSSAB:
Whereas Social Services and the Sault Ste. Marie Police Department have a shared interest in strengthening community development, safety and wellbeing for all members of the community, and
Whereas the SSMPS have published data that demonstrates many people within the justice system continue to re-offend for an existing catch-and-release provincial/federal judicial framework, and
Whereas it is the mandate of Social Services to offer help, housing, child care and employment supports to marginalized members of our community in need, and
Whereas recent community debate has centred around the need for policing and social services to better integrate and develop a shared service model to fully address the root causes of criminality,
Therefore be it resolved that the District of Sault Ste. Marie Social Services Administration Board staff be directed, within their existing budget, to take action on enhancing integration between Social Services and the Sault Ste. Marie Police Service/provincial court system to ensure core services are readily available to those most at risk of cycling through the criminal justice system.
Coun. Luke Dufour, board chair, said he drafted the resolution with Mike Nadeau, DSSMSSAB chief administrative officer.
"I'm sure most of you are familiar with a lot of the conversation that's going around, not just in our community but across North America, around the relationship between policing and social services," Dufour said.
"I believe that Sault Ste. Marie is a lot further ahead on this issue than some people – even myself before I was on [City] Council – really realized."
"I saw it as a really good opportunity to continue to invest in this direction. To continue the efforts that we've made. As a DSSAB, we're in a really unique position in Ontario because we hold so many of our services under one roof. We're able to present an integrated and collaborative service model alongside of our police partners, much more easily than they are in other communities."
Dufour cited the local Neighbourhood Resource Centre as an example of local co-operation between police and social services.
"How can we continue to push this kind of model forward in our community, especially at a time when we're seeing a lot of community appetite and demand for better mental health and better social services being involved in the policing and the justice system?" Dufour asked.
Nadeau said DSSMSSAB approached Ontario's solicitor-general at this year's Rural Ontario Municipal Association conference, asking for cash for a one-year pilot project to work with clients involved with both Ontario Works and justice system.
City police supported the initiative, but it was denied funding.
"We still believe that it was a worthwhile endeavour," Nadeau said.
With DSSMSSAB's office expenses down because of COVID-19, Nadeau decided there was opportunity within his existing budget to deploy the justice initiative.
He met during the past week with the police chief and also with the local crown attorney's office and bail court.
"Our management team is assigning an inspector and a couple of others from his team to start to flesh this out," Nadeau said.
"There's something in this that we need to strengthen our relationship with the police. We have a great relationship with them now but it can always go further."
"Let's implement the program this year and then go back to the solicitor-general next year... and advise them of the outcome of this idea."Nadeau said he's allocated up to $100,000 to assign one full-time-equivalent case manager for 12 months.
"It's already in the budget," he said."This is something we've been trying to get going for over a year."
"I think it's something that's very, very seriously needed, not only in our community but all over Ontario and Canada," commented board member David Edgar.
"It's not being done now, anywhere to our knowledge. We think there's an opportunity to really start to move this relationship forward," Nadeau said.
As of Saturday night, the Defund SSM Police online petition had 2,762 signatures.