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Assaults, threats, harassment and racist abuse push Saskatoon restaurant owner to close before dark

Star Phoenix logo Star Phoenix 2022-12-02 Thia James
Mandy Thibodeau has owned and operated the Subway restaurant on 22nd Street East for a decade. Out of concern for her staff's safety, she has taken the step of limiting the hours the store is open. © Provided by Star Phoenix Mandy Thibodeau has owned and operated the Subway restaurant on 22nd Street East for a decade. Out of concern for her staff's safety, she has taken the step of limiting the hours the store is open.

Mandy Thibodeau says the staff at her restaurant have become like members of her family.

Thibodeau has owned and operated the Subway restaurant on 22nd Street East in downtown Saskatoon for a decade. While safety has long been a concern in the area, she said in the last few months the situation has deteriorated so much that she’s limited the hours of operation to daytime only.

Staff have been assaulted, harassed, sworn at, threatened with violence and had racist comments hurled at them by people coming in, and she herself has repeatedly been threatened, she said.

“It’s not fair to my staff that they have to put up with it. When they hurt, I hurt. They’re my family, they’ve been with us for so long.”

After an employee who works closing shifts texted her to say she can’t do this anymore because it’s getting so bad at night, Thibodeau posted a sign on the door: Due to the ongoing unresolved safety issues in the area, we will be closing our business outside of daylight hours .

She’s unable to take on the late shifts herself because she has three small children at home, who sometimes visit her at work during the day when they’re not at school, she said, adding that her eldest child witnessed an assault that left him shaken.

“That shouldn’t happen in a family business,” she said.

An employee  who did not want to be named said she has worked there for nearly two years and doesn’t feel safe when it’s dark. She said she’s had to deal with people who are intoxicated and verbally abusive, and has been threatened and  told to “go back to your country.”

While a StarPhoenix reporter was meeting with them, two of the Saskatoon police alternative response officers (AROs) entered to check in with Thibodeau.

The AROs are unarmed special constables who patrol downtown and Riversdale  during the day. The unit began as a pilot project last year and Saskatoon police plan to make it a permanent fixture, having sought additional budget support .

Thibodeau praised the AROs, police patrol officers and the city’s community support officers, but noted they have a lot of ground to cover. She said the officers aren’t always told about calls for service to her business and if the calls aren’t forwarded to them, they won’t realize it’s a hot spot.

In an email, Saskatoon police spokesman Brad Jennings said the decision of whether to forward a reported incident to the “call-back” unit is at the discretion of the call-takers. He said if there’s a need for an immediate response, they will send an officer. Another factor in the decision to dispatch an officer is whether a disturbance is ongoing or concluded, he added.

“If, upon the initial call, the disturbance has already ended and the people involved have left it is possible our Communications Officer will refer the caller to our Online Reporting or Call-Back Unit,” he wrote.

By the end of October, Saskatoon police communications received more than 115,000 calls this year; 75,000 resulted in an officer being dispatched to respond.

Thibodeau said she wants to see more levels of support for people who are homeless or have mental health and addictions and are at different stages — those who are ready to be helped and those who aren’t ready or may pose a danger.

Brent Penner, executive director of DTNYXE, the downtown business improvement district, said in a prepared statement that many of the concerns the district hears about relate to issues around mental health and how this can affect businesses and area residents.

Unless things change in all major cities, including Saskatoon, public spaces are often places where people with mental health and addictions issues go, he said.

“Our city and province are well positioned to do things differently — things that would lead to better outcomes for people who are ill, for people working and visiting in our district. We need a co-ordinated plan to make that happen — and so far, we do not have one,” he wrote.

He’s suggesting a federal-provincial government plan that encompasses the issues of mental health and homelessness, with local input.

Thibodeau said the recent incidents have led her to think about the future of her downtown business. She’s weighed the negatives against positives that keep her there, such as having “amazing” landlords and lunchtime traffic recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect, she said.

Hiring a security guard isn’t feasible with the restaurant still trying to make ends meet, but she’s looked into installing a buzzer at the front door to let customers in and out, or having a pickup window installed to serve customers later in the day.

“We’ve been looking at a lot of different alternatives, but until we can get it cleaned up, and we can’t afford to do all that yet, shutting earlier is best,” she said.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the calls to police communications were received by the end of October, year to date.

tjames@postmedia.com

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