News / Ottawa

‘I've had to feel a young man's heartbeat stop’: Supervised injection site organizers take action

A pop-up supervised injection site, run by a group called Overdose Prevention Ottawa, is set to open on Friday morning.

Supporters of Overdose Prevention Ottawa's plan to open up a pop-up supervised injection site, which the group plans to open on Friday.

Kieran Delamont / Metro

Supporters of Overdose Prevention Ottawa's plan to open up a pop-up supervised injection site, which the group plans to open on Friday.

Harm reduction workers and volunteers from Overdose Prevention Ottawa (OPO) announced more information about the pop-up supervised injection site that will be opening in Ottawa on Friday.

Though they did not disclose the location, volunteers said that they will be setting up a tent with some basic injection supplies—syringes, gloves, naloxone and other first aid kits—and three trained volunteers on hand to respond in the case of an overdose.

“These sites work, they work extremely well,” said OPO volunteer Marilou Gagnon. “There’s 24 in BC, there’s one in Toronto. They work exceptionally well; very low cost, low barriers, and they save lives.”

OPO, along with the Canadian Association for People Who Use Drugs, urged Minister Philpott to declare an official state of emergency—something that would free up extra government resources—and to grant immediate exemptions to all sites who have applied.

“We just can’t justify letting people die because of bureaucracy,” she said. “We wouldn’t let that happen for any other population with a health care need. It wouldn’t be acceptable, so I don’t understand why it would be acceptable for people who use drugs to just tell them to wait and continue to die while we arrange our paperwork.”

Frederique Chabot, a downtown resident, also supported the site. “For me safer communities are not communities that deny health care to some of our neighbours,” she said. “I think this will mean a thriving and safe communities for all, and I’m really proud to be here today. And I’m happy to be raising my kids in such a community.”

Organizers are prepared for the possibility that police may shut them down, but hope that Ottawa police would adopt a similar stance to police in Vancouver and Toronto, who have been supportive of the sites. Mayor Jim Watson has been firmly opposed to safe injection sites in the past, however. On Thursday, he said only that "the City has not been involved in this initiative," and stressed that "there is a process for the federal approval of supervised consumption sites that I would encourage all community agencies to follow."

“If the city here takes another direction, it will be extremely hard to justify, considering that other cities are actually welcoming these sites and letting them operate,” said Gagnon.

Ottawa police declined to comment on the site, and declined to indicate whether or not they were planning on shutting it down on.

On Thursday, Ottawa Public Health offered tentative support for the plan, saying that “OPH stands ready to work with partners who have a common goal of saving lives from potential overdoses.”

In a letter to the Board of Health, the Mayor, and city councillors, Dr. Isra Levy wrote:

“Based on the limited information available with respect to the current initiative to open a “pop-up” overdose prevention site, this concept appears to be consistent with peer overdose prevention programs, including OPH’s own Peer Overdose Prevention Program (POPP), which has been operating since 2012 and which trains peers (people who inject opioids) to intervene during an overdose by administering naloxone.”

She added, however, a slight word against the nature of the site, writing, “the group speaking to the idea appears to have no formal legal construct, nor to have initiated any application to the federal government for an exemption as described above.”

The group, OPO, is a new one — it only formed last week, and Gagnon says they have been meeting for “five hours a night” ever since to get this project off the ground. It is entirely made up of volunteers, comprising “front-line workers, who do harm reduction every day here in this city, and health care providers.” Gagnon herself is a nursing professor at the University of Ottawa, and said that, “I actually have a duty to care, so I got involved in this project because for me, it is an ethical obligation to contribute to this project.”

Robert Jamison, another OPO volunteer and peer support worker in Ottawa, said that the crisis that the harm reduction community has been bracing for is finally starting to hit the city.

“In the past 30 days I’ve had to feel a man’s heartbeat, a young man’s heartbeat stop. I felt another man’s heartbeat start because of naloxone,” he said. “I’ve been witness to a mother who used alone and died alone while her baby was in the apartment. This is in the last 30 days in my neighbourhood.”

Ward 13 councillor Rich Chiarelli came out forcefully against the site. In an animated email sent to Dr. Levy on Thursday, he wrote:

“This is not ok. What steps are we taking to make sure this doesn’t happen? You will recall a couple of years ago in my ward a popup plastic surgery outlet was established and investigations subsequently proved that the “surgeon” had never even been to medical school. We shut that down, but only after residents had been permanently disfigured. When dealing with opioids the consequences can be even worse than disfigurement.”

In the email, he urged Ottawa Public Health to take steps to close the pop-up site as soon as possible—which it appears they have no intention of doing.

OPO are hoping to have the resources to keep the site open indefinitely. Their hope is that, as the site operates, they will attract more volunteers and mre donations that will allow them to purchase more supplies. Gagnon stresses that part of the appeal of pop-up supervised injection sites is their low overhead costs: all you need is a tent, a chair, a table, some medical supplies and volunteers. The hope, then, is that their demonstration of a successful site will “push the authorities to show that this is not costing a lot of money, and we can do this with not that [much] extensive training,” she said.

In general, OPO hopes that the site that opens tomorrow will be something of a trial balloon for other, similar sites—the group is putting together a guide that will help teach other organizations how to set up a supervised injection site—and to help grow their own. For instance, they are not currently able to offer drug testing services, but said that it was something “we’re going to look in to eventually.”

For the members of OPO, this is a first step in a movement that is growing rapidly across the country. “I know for a fact that multiple cities are looking in to this and getting ready,” said Gagnon.

Organizers are urging the community to contribute. “Help us. This is a crisis, this is a medical crisis,” said Jamison. “People are dying. Come down and volunteer if you can.” 

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