Civic engagement in Ottawa’s Vanier — The fate of the Salvation Army

Lest our readers begin to think that I only get involved in issues pertaining to Hungary and East/Central Europe, I wanted to share some observations from a highly charged and exceptionally well attended public forum in Ottawa’s Vanier ward on the proposed move of a Salvation Army emergency shelter and social service centre to this area of the city. The newly built shelter would provide 350 beds  and would include almost 10,000 square metres of facilities. On July 10th, City Councillor Mathieu Fleury organized a strategic community discussion (essentially a type of town hall meeting) on the controversial decision to build a Salvation Army shelter on Vanier’s main thoroughfare, Montreal Road, in the place of what is today a rather unsightly motel. I own a townhouse a mere 600 metres from where the new shelter is to be built and had received a notice in my mailbox four days earlier to attend. In the past, it has been my experience that similar public community discussions or town hall meetings attracted modest interest in Canada’s capital, so I assumed that showing up 20 minutes before the event’s start time was adequate to secure a seat at the Richelieu-Vanier Community Centre. I was sorely mistaken.

The public forum on the Salvation Army’s proposed move to Vanier sparked concern among many residents. Some 500 residents showed up for the town hall meeting, as did the local media. Photo: C. Adam.

More than a quarter of an hour before the event, a long line of anxious and engaged Vanier residents were queuing outside the community centre in an ever growing line, waiting to make their way inside the congested foyer and the packed-to-capacity hall where the forum was set to take place. Most people were present to express concern over the shelter’s proposed move into a neighbourhood and onto a street that has tried hard to become safer, cleaner and more family-friendly over the years. Many felt that while social services such as those offered by the Salvation Army to the most vulnerable are valuable, Vanier was already pushing above its weight when it comes to outreach programs to different demographics–the former municipality, amalgamated into Ottawa in 2001, is home to the Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health, a true architectural landmark in the area, as well as the John Howard Society, the Vanier Community Service Centre and several other initiatives. Others were most concerned about the lack of public consultation about a move that appears to some as being a fait accompli and raises questions about Montreal Road’s future as a safe, inviting main street for the neighbourhood, with local businesses.

As the Salvation Army’s current site, the Byward Market, becomes increasingly home to upscale and upper middle-class condo development projects and luxury hotels, are shelters being pushed out and are the challenges that come with these services being transplanted to Vanier, a traditionally lower income area just east of the downtown core? That was certainly one of the lingering concerns that I heard as I waited, along with well over one hundred people, to get into the hall.

Five minutes before the forum was expected to start, City Councillor Mathieu Fleury asked to speak with the crowd that had gathered inside the foyer and in front of the building outside. By that time, the crowd numbered more than 200 local residents–all people who had come to attend the town hall meeting, but who could not get into the hall, which already had 300 people sitting and standing inside, and was filled to capacity. Many engaged residents were very vocally upset about not being able to attend the meeting and some called on Mr. Fleury to invite all those seated inside to come outside and hold the public forum outdoors on that balmy July evening, where everyone could attend. In the end, Mr. Fleury is organizing a second public forum on Friday, July 14, 2017 at 5 pm.

City Councillor Mathieu Fleury addresses nearly 200 concerned residents outside the Richelieu Vanier Community Centre. Photo: C. Adam.

As the councillor for the Rideau-Vanier Ward, which is home to both the current and the future site of the Salvation Army, Mr. Fleury seems torn on the issue of the Salvation Army’s move to Vanier. He is supportive of the significant, multi-million dollar investment into Vanier, but is critical of the shelter’s planned move to 333 Montreal Road, the site of the grim Concorde Motel. The city councillor argues that real consultation with locals would have yielded a more appropriate site in Vanier than a road that a City of Ottawa strategic plan had previously designated as becoming a future commercial main street–safer, cleaner and more attractive to residents than it has historically been. Prostitution and drugs are still problems along a stretch of Montreal Road and the presence of a dozen or so payday loan stores, pawn shops and weed dispensaries probably does not help. There is concern that the Salvation Army’s planned new facility on this street does not move it in the strategic direction set by the City of Ottawa. Mr. Fleury also questions whether centralizing all social and emergency services in the way that the Salvation Army has done in the market is a good idea, or whether a more decentralized option is the way to go.

One of the most prominent voices against the move is Canada’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Paul Heinbecker, a resident of Vanier. Mr. Heinbecker wrote:

“Instead of working to alleviate the market area’s problems, the city’s leadership seems happy to see them transferred to Vanier. Out of sight, out of mind…the condo buildings in the immediate vicinity were built long after the Salvation Army opened its centre on George Street. The people who live there now moved in in full knowledge of the problems in that neighbourhood. In Vanier, the new centre would have to be imposed on existing residents who are striving to improve their community.”

Mr. Heinbecker concludes that Vanier “was better off when it was independent of the City of Ottawa.” Although being a newer resident of Vanier myself (I bought my townhouse here in 2013), this is an argument I have heard before. Will there be a movement to demerge Vanier from the City of Ottawa? Municipal demergers occurred in Montreal, though the demographic and linguistic realities there are perhaps different than in Ottawa.

While I may not have gotten into the event that I so hoped to attend, I was impressed by such a high level of community engagement from local residents–people of all generations, and both Francophones and Anglophones–and their pride in, and concern for their community.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *