‘All the rest is just noise’: compassion remains focus at pop-up injection site
The debate among city officials about what should happen to the Lowertown site is seeming increasingly divorced from the reality of what harm reduction workers are facing every day.
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On average, the pop-up overdose prevention site in Raphael Brunet Park has one person use their service every six minutes. Over 26 days, the site has seen more than 800 visitors.
The numbers, on their own, are impressive — enough to push the city to recognize the need for supervised injection sites — but are only half the story. Beyond stats, beyond fights with politicians, beyond spats with neighbourhood organizations, there is one guiding principle for the volunteers at Overdose Prevention Ottawa: what goes on in the tent is not just about reversing overdoses—it’s mostly about caring for people who are, often, understood by the public only by the drugs they use. People who are forgotten and pathologized more often than they are genuinely cared for.
Marilou Gagnon, a nursing professor at the University of Ottawa who was instrumental in organizing OPO, talks less about the quantifiable successes of the site, and more about the people she’s met through volunteering there.
“There was this young guest who was saying how it was his birthday. He always calls his family, but someone stole his phone, and Bobby [Jamison] gave him his phone,” says Gagnon, half-joking that she has to stop herself from crying. “He ended up talking to his family for an hour and a half, long distance. That guy, that day, he talked to his family because of our site.
“People like to put us in a box and say we’re so bad. But what we do is basically connect at a human level,” she says.
Gagnon says that being in the only city that seems interested in shutting down a site offering life-saving services is “disappointing,” and that she’s “troubled” by what she sees as the mayor’s anti-harm reduction stance. But, “years later when we look back, we’ll be on the right side of history,” she says.
Part of the formula is the intimate connection with loss that many in the harm reduction community have felt at a personal level. In February, Raffi Balian — a harm reduction worker from Toronto who had worked with many in the community across Canada — died of a fentanyl overdose while at a conference in Vancouver.
“Our group has said from day one that we’re coming from a place of grief,” she said. “I see my friends who are nurses who are completely exhausted. Harm reduction workers who are underfunded, understaffed, and doing this amazing work with never enough resources.”
What exists at Raphael Brunet Park is, essentially, a family. Gagnon says she knows most of the visitors by name, and that she looks forward to seeing them every night she works at the tent. She smiles to herself, and says that one of her favourite parts of the job is hanging out and listening to the conversations happening in the smoking tent.
The path out of the overdose crisis is paved with compassion for people who often get none.
“The only thing that matters is that,” says Gagnon. “All the rest is just noise.”