Long-promised sobering centre could mean fewer intoxicated people in Thompson, Man., jail cells


The city of Thompson, Man., has spent years detaining intoxicated people in jail because there was nowhere else to put them, but the creation of a long-promised detox centre could provide more options for police, and safety for the city’s most vulnerable.

The centre would be a 24/7 spot where police and community groups could drop off an intoxicated person overnight instead of sending them to the RCMP detachment, where they would be forced to sleep in a jail cell. 

Local politicians have been asking for one for over a decade, but now Colleen Smook, the mayor of the northern Manitoba city, says the wait could soon be over. 

“The money is there. It’s not just a pledge. It’s not a promise. It’s there,” she told CBC News.

“Everybody’s come out of their silos and is working together very well to get this going, because it’s recognized that it’s a definite need in Thompson and area.”

Similar to the Main Street Project’s protective care unit in Winnipeg, the longstanding hope is that Thompson’s proposed “Main Street North” would follow in its footsteps.

Colleen Smook, the mayor of Thompson, Man., said the city is working on finding a location for its own sobering centre. (Ramraajh Sharvendiran/CBC)

In Winnipeg, the protective unit has been around since 1988 and takes in over 11,000 people a year — brought in by police and peace officers — potentially saving them from spending the night in jail.

Earlier this year, Justice Minister Cliff Cullen said the provincial government was giving Thompson $2.8 million for its centre.

The money makes good on a recommendation from a 2015 inquest which called for a sobering centre in Thompson, which has a population of about 13,000.

The inquest looked into the death of Jeffrey Ray Mallet, who died in 2008 after being taken into custody for being drunk. 

It is believed he was dead for up to 10 hours before RCMP officers discovered his body.

A CBC investigation found that people in northern Manitoba are detained by police six times more than those in Winnipeg when it comes to public intoxication.

The Thompson RCMP detachment is where almost half of those detained in the north, under the province’s Intoxicated Persons Detention Act, end up spending the night.

And it is where Celine Samuel, 44, died last February, and where Genesta Garson, then 19 years old, was knocked unconscious by a community safety officer in 2018. Both had been detained into custody on the suspicion of being intoxicated. 

If either woman had been picked up in Yellowknife, they could have been dropped off at the city’s Day Centre and Sobering Centre, said Denise McKee, the centre’s executive director.

“The sobering centre is a nonjudgmental harm reduction, trauma-informed care approach to supporting people who are intoxicated or under the influence of illicit or non-illicit drugs,” McKee said.

The sobering centre, located right in Yellowknife’s downtown core, opened in 2018 and more than 8,000 people use it each year. 

She said the RCMP lobbied for the centre to open.

WATCH | Video of the Garson incident. (WARNING: Video contains graphic and disturbing images.)

Genesta Garson was detained at the RCMP detachment in Thompson, Man. on Jan. 6, 2018 after officers suspected her of being drunk. This is the security video taken from that night, which shows an officer knocking her unconscious. 1:49

The RCMP “needed to move from this space of being the gatekeeper of people who are intoxicated and putting [them] in cells to bringing them to a space where they could sleep it off, and then they wouldn’t be incarcerated,” she said.

The shift is a move away from “this continuous revolving door of the justice system, which is disproportionately occupied by Indigenous people,” McKee said.

Hundreds of those who use the centre are dropped off by RCMP and even more walk in, according to its annual report.

Similar to Manitoba, the Northwest Territories’ Liquor Act allows peace officers to detain a person believed to be intoxicated in public without charging them.

Before Yellowknife’s sobering centre opened up, people were sent to RCMP cells because they had nowhere to go, said McKee.

Denise McKee is executive director of the sobering centre in Yellowknife. She says the centre gives people a safe place to go when they are intoxicated, keeping them out of jail cells. (Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi/CBC)

“And that’s not really the answer to the problem. It just creates kind of a bigger, long-lasting problem on the road to recovery,” she said. 

“They’re not in contravention of the Criminal Code. They’re intoxicated.”

Supt. Kevin Lewis, North District commander for the Manitoba RCMP, supports the idea of the Thompson centre.

Law enforcement is too often used to deal with the major social issues that exist in the city, he said.

“I think that’s a major first step in addressing some of the social issues that are plaguing the north here,” he said. 

Smook said the city is currently searching for a location for the centre. The mayor doesn’t expect to know before next year when it might open.

But she is confident it will get built.

“I’m hoping it’ll make a huge difference to the community.”

Supt. Kevin Lewis, North District Commander for the Manitoba RCMP, said a sobering centre will allow officers to focus more time on policing, not on social issues. (Jerry Hebert)

Read more at CBC.ca