A photo of the bronze sign reading Halifax City Hall, set into the stone wall on the corner of the building. Taken in June 2021
Halifax City Hall in June 2021. — Photo: Zane Woodford

A proposal for a safer alternative to the drunk tank is moving ahead.

Halifax regional council approved a motion during its Tuesday meeting directing staff to “examine potential changes to existing alcohol policies and regulations at the municipal and provincial levels to reduce harmful patterns of alcohol consumption” and “develop options for Regional Council’s consideration for establishment of a sobering centre in HRM.”

As the Halifax Examiner reported over the weekend:

A new report from the city’s public safety advisor recommends moving ahead with a tailored sobering centre in the hopes of diverting some frequently-intoxicated people out of the drunk tank.

Sobering centres are safe places for people to sleep off the effect of drugs or alcohol. They’re sometimes located with detox centres or emergency shelters, and typically have healthcare workers on staff. The staff triage people to the hospital if they need medical attention, or to cells if they become violent. There are examples of sobering centres across Canada, including in Ottawa, Winnipeg, and Victoria.

The report by public safety advisor Amy Siciliano is a response to a February 2020 motion from Coun. Lindell Smith seeking a staff report looking into sobering centres, along with managed alcohol programs and the data on detentions for public intoxication in Halifax.

Smith made the motion after January 2020 presentations to the Board of Police Commissioners from Harry Critchley, vice-chair of the East Coast Prison Justice Society, on sobering centres and Dr. Leah Genge, who works at the Mobile Outreach Street Health (MOSH), Direction 180, and Spryfield Medical Centre, on managed alcohol programs.

Siciliano recommended the municipality leave managed alcohol programs, which give people with severe alcohol use disorder controlled amounts of alcohol on a schedule to avoid withdrawal while also reducing binging and non-beverage alcohol consumption, to the provincial government.

Councillors were generally in favour of the recommendations, although Coun. Paul Russell argued the sobering centres should be left to the provincial government too.

“Once again we’re swimming outside of our lane,” Russell said. “The health and well-being of Nova Scotians is a provincial responsibility. And as we take on more and more of what the province should be doing with with housing security, with food security with, with a number of things, it means that we are taking funds away from what we should be doing.”

In a response to a question from Smith, Siciliano noted other municipalities across Canada with sobering centres typically have more of a healthcare role, but that doesn’t mean Halifax shouldn’t be involved.

“We are already playing a role in providing care for people who have public intoxication, so it makes sense for us to provide that care, where appropriate, through a different mechanism, whether it be funding an agency to stand up a sobering centre, or providing other alternatives that could help divert folks from the prisoner care facility,” Siciliano said.

The motion passed with only Russell voting no.

City showers for homeless people

The municipality may soon offer showers to homeless people following a unanimously-approved motion at council on Tuesday.

Coun. Tony Mancini brought forward a motion for a staff report “examining the possibility of a pilot program providing shower facilities for people experiencing homelessness either through retrofitted transit buses, or partnering with a community organization to provide mobile shower trailers or working with recreation facilities.”

In the detailed reasoning for the motion, Mancini wrote:

Homeless individuals face a barrier to basic hygiene and sanitation services. Poor hygiene among the homeless contributes to infectious disease and poor mental health. The idea would be that this would be similar to the agreement we have with the YMCA for the Senior Snow Removal Program. These services have been, and in some cases, still are operational in Abbotsford, Victoria, Edmonton, and Toronto.

Showers could be provided as retrofitted Halifax Transit buses, through a community group purchasing a commercial trailer or by working with recreation facilities to develop a program. The staff report should consider potential costs, partnerships, parking, safety and risk management for staff and volunteers, water system considerations and site selection for the program.

“We’re so privileged,” Mancini said during the meeting. “Taking showers is something you don’t even think about. But for others, it’s not.”

Coun. Sam Austin suggested the last part of the motion — “working with recreation facilities” — may be the most realistic because they already have showers.

“Do we need to be trying to figure out the logistics of a mobile unit that’s going around, or is it simply easier to figure out the logistics of bringing people who need this service to the facilities that we already own and operate and are staffed and all that good stuff?” Austin said.

Chief administrative officer Jacques Dubé said it could be August before he could even get a report back.

“Getting a mobile shower facility in play would not happen very quickly, if at all. The cost would be fairly high,” Dubé said. “I think we’d have to look at what’s available in our community centres, recreation facilities, fire halls, etcetera, and see what’s available and what the logistics are and what kind of security requirements are required in terms of dealing with a clientele that are requiring showers.”

Search and rescue could become city department

Due to another Mancini motion, the municipality will consider bringing volunteer ground search and rescue crews under the Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency umbrella.

Mancini brought a request for a staff report to Tuesday’s meeting hoping to examine “the feasibility of bringing Halifax Search and Rescue under the municipality as a part of the Halifax Fire business unit.”

The motion was originally focused solely on Halifax Search and Rescue, but it was expanded to include smaller search and rescue teams in rural areas.

The search and rescue teams currently operate independently, but rely on grants from the municipal and provincial governments, along with fundraising.

“Fundraising issues and volunteer issues can negatively impact their ability to provide this service,” Mancini wrote in the reasoning for his motion. “Halifax Search and Rescue has not been able to fundraise for the past year and a half due to COVID restrictions, leaving their service at risk.”

The report would look at “how the municipality is currently assisting Halifax Search and Rescue teams, what funding they receive to ensure that they can continue to operate effectively, as well as what taking this service in-house would look like from a financial and operational perspective.”

The motion passed unanimously.

Polygraph justification to be tested

The municipality will outline its use of polygraph testing in a staff report following a motion on Tuesday.

Coun. Shawn Cleary moved for a report “on developing an evidence-based formal policy for polygraph testing for the purposes of human resource management, especially during the selection process for any or all employees of the municipality, that provides a jurisdictional scan and includes peer-reviewed academic literature on the efficacy of polygraph testing for employment.”

The motion passed unanimously.

As the Examiner reported earlier this month, Cleary brought the motion following a budget debate exchange over Halifax Regional Police’s continued use of the dodgy tests for employment screening and interrogation, and a story in the Committee Trawler about a man whose life was torn apart following an HRP polygraph test for employment screening.

Cleary said on Tuesday residents deserve a “transparent and accountable framework” for the use of polygraph testing if HRM is going to use it, but he’d prefer it didn’t.

Deputy Mayor Tim Outhit asked whether council had any authority to try to change HRP’s use of polygraph testing.

“The police chief has broad powers over police employees in the force, but he also has to follow administrative policies set by the CAO or any other administrative policies set by council that don’t interfere with the Police Act,” chief administrative officer Jacques Dubé explained.

“Council can impose policy on the CAO. There’s a question whether or not you can impose that same policy on the police chief because of the broad powers in the Police Act … but this is certainly a welcome motion and we’ll come back with a staff report on that.”

Councillor wants signage on ‘boat etiquette’

As boating season launches in the municipality, Coun. Lisa Blackburn wants to make sure people are following the rules.

Blackburn brought a motion to council on Tuesday seeking a staff report “on installing boating etiquette / safety signage at all HRM owned and maintained public boat launches similar to the one at the Africville Park Boat Launch.”

The A. Murray MacKay Bridge is seen from Africville on a sunny summer day in 2018. The photo is taken facing east, looking down the boat slip into the harbour, with the bridge spanning overhead. In the distance you can see the red and white stacks of Tufts Cove.
The boat launch in Africville in 2018. — Photo: Zane Woodford

“The signage is to include contact information for reporting unsafe boating behaviour, reminders of speed limits near shoreline, requirement for Personal Floatation Devices, reminder that no drinking is permitted while vessel is in motion, reminder to be attentive, respectful of swimmers and any other etiquette and safety reminders staff deem should be included to ensure safe enjoyment of our waterways for all.”

Blackburn said she wants consistent signage across HRM, with contact numbers for reporting unsafe boating.

The motion passed unanimously.

Lake monitoring program approved

Council agreed on Tuesday to move ahead with a new proposal for water quality monitoring in 74 of the municipality’s lakes.

As the Examiner reported earlier this month, council’s Environment and Sustainability Standing Committee recommended in favour of the plan:

“Water quality would be tested using routine parameters for lake trophic status, chloride levels, and important observational information such as ice in/out, presence of algae blooms, invasive species or nuisance aquatic plant growth,” Emma Wattie, the municipality’s water resources specialist, wrote in the report to the committee.

“These baseline parameters, especially when collected over several seasons, and when compared to previous study findings, will provide the Municipality with a foundational understanding of lake health. This will be critical to informing management and land development strategies.”

Three of the lakes — Ash, Topsail and Big Cranberry — would be used as reference lakes to gauge changes in water quality in those nearby. They were chosen because they’re unaffected by nearby development or land-use.

The three reference lakes, along with 25 lakes deemed highly vulnerable, would be sampled twice a year, in April and August.

The vulnerability is based on the lakes’ “risk of harmful algae bloom, high chloride concentration, historical E. coli contamination, or other risks from land use.”

The highly vulnerable lakes include Banook, Governors, Loon, Paper Mill, Sandy, and Williams.

The remaining 46 less vulnerable lakes would be tested annually in April. Those include Bissett, Echo, Long, Rocky, Grand and Susies.

Testing will begin next spring.

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Zane Woodford is the Halifax Examiner’s municipal reporter. He covers Halifax City Hall and contributes to our ongoing PRICED OUT housing series. Twitter @zwoodford

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