Outgoing Winnipeg mayor says failing to do more to end homelessness is biggest regret

Outgoing Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman says his biggest regret in office is the city’s failure to make more progress to reduce homelessness.

With 10 months left to go in his second and final term in office, Bowman said far too many Winnipeggers still don’t have a roof over their heads and that’s partly on the city, even though housing is a provincial responsibility.

“The fact that we have far too many people living unsheltered and on our streets should be unacceptable to all Winnipeggers,” Bowman said earlier this week during his final year-end interview with CBC News.

He does not intend to run again in October’s civic election.

Bowman said he hopes his successor focuses on housing and homelessness.

“One of the greatest challenges that we have as a community is, how do we respond to some of the complex and acute needs that far too many of our residents face when it comes to mental health, addictions and housing?” he said.

Looking back, he said he may have made a tactical error when he supported a 10-year plan to end homelessness that did not rely upon funding from other levels of government.

“End Homelessness Winnipeg has not been as effective over the years as I would have hoped. That’s on me and on others in the community,” said Bowman, who earlier this year accused former premier Brian Pallister of being “missing in action” on homelessness.

Tessa Blaikie Whitecloud, the former executive director for 1JustCity — which operates three drop-in centres for people who don’t have housing — said she is pleased to hear Bowman reflecting on Winnipeg’s slow progress to combat homelessness.

“I hope it allows people coming in to the mayoral race to recognize it as an issue moving forward,” said Blaikie Whitecloud, who now works as CEO for Siloam Mission.

She said Winnipeg can do more to ensure future zoning and development agreements require the construction of more genuinely affordable housing, as opposed to building apartments at median-market rates that are still beyond the reach of many people who work full time.

The city can look to Medicine Hat, Alta., for a model of a successful community-wide plan to reduce homelessness, she suggested. 

Winnipeg and Manitoba must also consider more supportive housing and group housing for those who need more than just a roof over the heads, she said, adding she looks forward to a new provincial strategy to combat homelessness.

Pandemic, reconciliation, infrastructure on to-do list

Bowman said he doesn’t intend to relax during his final months in office. His primary focus is ensuring Winnipeg does whatever it can to protect its residents as the pandemic worsens, he said.

The mayor also identified reconciliation as a priority. His to-do list in 2022 includes the ongoing redevelopment of the former Kapyong lands in Tuxedo into an Indigenous economic development zone.

He also wants to see the permanent incorporation of Indigenous symbols into city hall.

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman, who conducted his year-end interview with his wife Tracy, is entering his final 10 months in office. Winnipeg voters will elect a new mayor in October 2022. (Zoom/CBC)

Bowman also said he looks forward to ensuring Ottawa signs on to a pair funding deals already supported by the city and province.

One involves the second phase of $1.8-billion dollar upgrade of the city’s largest sewage-treatment plant, the North End Water Pollution Control Centre. This phase involves the construction of a $552-million facility to process biosolids — partly treated human waste — from all three city sewage plants.

The second deal would see $539 million worth of Winnipeg Transit projects proceed, including planning for the first downtown components of what would eventually be a three-corridor rapid-transit network in Winnipeg.

That planning work, however, is not slated to start until 2025. It would involve the initial plans to convert Union Station into the city’s central transit hub, move some buses from a downtown stretch of Main Street up to unused tracks on CN Rail’s Mainline, and build a new transit bridge over Main at Stradbrook Avenue to connect that track to the existing Southwest Transitway.

Promises kept and unfulfilled

That falls short of Bowman’s promises when he first ran for mayor in 2014, pledging to complete six transit corridors by 2030

“Modernizing transit has been something that has been talked about for a long time,” said Bowman, suggesting he was able to achieve more than his predecessors on the rapid-transit file.

“I think that we’ve been able to move the ball forward much faster over the last seven years, and I’m really optimistic about the future as a result of the work that we’ve all done collaboratively together with the community we have.”

In 2014, then-candidate Brian Bowman pledged to complete six rapid transit lines by 2030. The city is on track to begin the planning on future phases in 2025. (Sean Kavanagh/CBC)

Over the past seven years, Bowman managed to keep most of his initial 2014 promises, which included pledges to build a downtown dog park, limit property tax increases to 2.33 per cent a year and spend more money on road repairs.

But he did not keep two significant promises. In 2014, he quickly abandoned a pledge to have council elect members of its executive policy committee. He instead continued to appoint members of his inner circle.

He also abandoned a pledge to reopen the Portage and Main intersection to pedestrians, following a city plebiscite against the move.

“I don’t regret listening to Winnipeggers,” said Bowman, who nonetheless said reopening Portage and Main is inevitable at some point.

“There’s a lot of good things happening downtown and I do think they are going to increase the pressure to eventually open up that intersection. And I hope Winnipeggers and the council that they elect are ready to take that plunge sooner than later.”

Winnipeggers elect their next mayor on Oct. 26, 2022.

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