Proposed N.B. jail sees large opposition at public hearings

Fredericton city council has voted 7-4 in favour of the first and second readings of a rezoning proposal to allow for a provincial correctional facility to be built in the Vanier Industrial Park. Nathalie Sturgeon/Global News

Fredericton city council has voted 7-4 in favour of the first and second readings of a rezoning proposal to allow for a provincial correctional facility to be built in the Vanier Industrial Park.

On Monday night, the gallery was packed with more than 100 people in the upper gallery. There were 16 listed speakers to council, with 14 in opposition and two in favour of the proposed $32-million correctional facility.

Former New Brunswick ombudsman Charles Murray was the first to speak, saying while he doesn’t necessarily agree with the current proposed location, he is in favour of a jail that would keep offenders in the community near their supports.

“I came here to speak, very briefly, about how our community approaches this issue and the degree to which we are stigmatizing offenders,” he said, addressing council Monday night.

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He said the nearest facility is an hour away, meaning those in provincial facilities are separated from family, friends and any support system they have.

“They’re our fellow citizens who will come back to our community no matter where they serve their jail time,” he said. “Do we want them to come back, having had the support and rehabilitation here, or do you want to exile them somewhere, cut them off from their family and their supports, and make their transition back that much harder? That’s the real choice,” he said.

Much of the opposition came from those living in Lincoln Heights.

Read more: Fredericton’s planning advisory committee rejects rezoning for N.B. jail

Erin Mattinson has lived in the subdivision, which will continue to be developed, for 17 years. She said the entire process around the jail has lacked transparency.

Several residents indicated the neighbouring community was not consulted before the province chose the location. Some took issue with the city, as well, who said it is only required to notify people by mail within 100 metres of the location.

“We were not consulted,” Mattinson said. “I know it’s not you (city councillors), but you can stop it.”

She said it will make her rethink how she and her family live their lives.

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Lincoln Heights is 1,100 metres from the proposed jail site. Nathalie Sturgeon / Global News

“Council members, I urge you to reject this jail,” she said. “I urge you to be the change. Let’s make Fredericton a safer place to be by rejecting this rezoning proposal and change the conversation.”

Chris Collins, another resident of Lincoln Heights who prepared a petition with hundreds of signatures, said all efforts to understand why the site was chosen and why the community wasn’t consulted prior to any decision have been fruitless.

Dr. Sara Davidson, the medical director of the River Stone Recovery Centre, spoke about how the criminal justice system isn’t the proper channel to rehabilitate people.

“Inmates are overrepresented by people who are Indigenous, racialized, have traumatic brain injuries, who are neurodiverse, and have severe psychiatric conditions, people with mental health conditions including substance use disorder.… The great unifier in all is they all live in poverty for the vast majority,” she said.

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Davidson said she understood that the council meeting wasn’t about a referendum on housing, but points out that $32 million is enough to create 400 units – the amount needed to eradicate homelessness in the city.

“This is your time to choose councillors,” she said.

She said people have to understand that people turn to drugs after losing their housing and will resort to crime in order to stay out of withdrawal.

“We have to stop treating health-care issues through the criminal justice system,” Davidson said. “Crystal meth is a stimulant drug. It’s very cheap and it is very available. But if you’re living outside, like the 100 or so folks that are living outside while we sit in this warm room, meth makes you feel warm when you’re really cold. It makes your belly feel full when it’s empty. It keeps you awake so you can walk all night and not freeze to death and it feels like a warm hug from a loved one like everything is OK, but we all know it’s not OK.”

Government response and vote

Councillors Steven Hicks, Jason Lejeune, Eric Megarity, Bruce Grandy, Jocelyn Pike, Greg Ericson and Henri Malliet voted their approval, while Margo Shephard, Kevin Darrah, Ruth Breen and Cassandra LeBlanc voted against.

None of the councillors were made available to speak to reporters at the meeting due to what the city said are procedural rules that prevent them from speaking about the jail while the motion is before council.

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However, the applicant did speak at the meeting, showing support.

Mike Comeau, the deputy minister of justice and public safety, spoke specifically about the overcrowding in provincial jails and the rising crime rates. The government has specifically identified the Saint John Regional Correctional Centre as an issue, where many inmates from the capital region are held.

At least 100 people filled the upstairs gallery at Fredericton’s city hall. Nathalie Sturgeon / Global News

“For everyone inside those fences, overcrowding means more stress, it means less space for distancing, it means less space for isolation for new admission because we’re still doing that, it means increased risk for COVID, it means increasing risk of other infections, it also means in every jurisdiction on the planet that inmate overcrowding means conflict, it means increased violence,” he said, speaking to the council.

He cited specific data, including Statistics Canada’s crime severity index, available to anyone online, which shows New Brunswick’s crime severity at 26 per cent.

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Comeau also listed several other crime statistics from StatCan.

He also addressed concerns from residents who said they were not consulted about the location after being pressed by Coun. Kevin Darrah, saying the province felt that there would be appropriate consultation through the city’s planning process.

“As I’m standing in my second public meeting in three weeks, I’m having a hard time accepting the premise of the question that there has been no engagement … well, because we knew that we were going to have a public conversation here.”

Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Jeff Carr has said previously that the city is ideal because of the access to water and sewer, but should the city reject its proposal, it will look elsewhere in the region.

Conflict of interest

Valerya Edelman addressed the council as a social worker and as a member of the recently formed coalition that is working against the construction of any new jail.

She spoke directly to the harmful impacts of incarceration, but also accused councillors Steve Hicks and Bruce Grandy of having a conflict of interest.

Hicks is a probation officer and works for the Department of Justice and Public Safety, while Grandy works for the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, the two proponents involved in the application.

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Neither declared any conflict at the beginning of the meeting. Hicks and Grandy declined requests for interviews on the accusations on Monday.

Wayne Knorr, a spokesperson for the city, said in an email that the two councillors do not feel they are in conflict and added a link to the city’s Code of Conduct rules.

The rezoning proposals go for third reading by council on Jan. 23.

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