After a visit to “injection sites” in Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside and Toronto, local MP Alex Nuttall still isn’t convinced such a facility would work, or should even be attempted, in Barrie’s downtown.
The Barrie-Springwater-Oro-Medonte MP, who has been strongly opposed to a proposal to start a safe injection site in the city, held a news conference on Monday at Common Good Cafe on Bayfield Street where he released a 49-page report on ways he thinks the opioid crisis should be fought, both locally and abroad.
The aim of Nuttall’s report, titled Care and Compassion: Fighting the Opioid Crisis, was to look at the opioid crisis from various angles, he said. Part of the project included looking at studies from other parts of the world and across Canada to see what methods work.
Through his research, Nuttall said it’s clear to him that the solution is more avenues to rehabilitation and treatment, not sanctioned injection sites.
Nuttall and his staff began working on the report more than a month ago, after learning of a proposal, spearheaded by the Gilbert Centre and endorsed by the Canadian Mental Health Association, to bring an injection site to Barrie.
Prior to visiting Vancouver and Toronto, Nuttall was unequivocal in his stance opposing an injection site in Barrie. BarrieToday asked whether those visits changed his resolve in any way, either for, or against, a safe injection site.
“One thing that should be noted is objectivity in this report,” he said. “I can’t claim to be someone who was 100 per cent objective, because I wasn’t, OK? And I don’t want to cloud or lie, this isn’t to taint anyone’s view of the entire subject.
“I will tell you this: when you have data for 15 years, that will point the way,” Nuttall added. “There are less people dying from overdoses in the Downtown Eastside, but there’s not less people dying in Vancouver.”
Nuttall compared what he saw in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, with its eight injection sites, to wartime Rwanda.
“I think it’s important that people see that area,” he said. “When you look at the effects of it, it is incredible. You can’t evenly fully describe what you see."
Nuttall said he also saw a lot of crime and extreme poverty around the facilities he visited, particularly in Vancouver, which has had injection sites since 2003. “There’s no doubt that major crimes increase around injection sites,” he said. “You’ll see the data supports that over the last 15 years.”
Matt Turner, harm reduction co-ordinator with the Gilbert Centre, says Nuttall’s assessment of Vancouver is unfair, noting there are other cities that have shown crime impact on an area and that there were no so-called “amnesty zones” surrounding the sites.
“There are several studies that indicate that, and have shown that, (supervised consumption sites) are a neutral effect in surrounding areas,” said Turner, adding an Australian study, which was provided to Nuttall, “demonstrated business concerns around the sites decreased over time and that the sites decreased open drug use, and crime surrounding them.”
Nevertheless, Nuttall continues to come out strongly against an injection site in Barrie.
“We do not and will not recommend proceeding with an injection site in downtown Barrie,” he said. “We have many issues with it, beginning with the language used to describe what an injection site is.
“It originally was an injection site and then a safe injection site, now the Ford (provincial) government has changed it to a consumption site,” Nuttall added. “The more that we whitewash the language related to the services that are provided at these places in trying to get public buy-in, the further apart we’re going to be from the public. When we try to be so politically correct that we’re essentially hoodwinking people, it’s not good for consultation and it’s certainly not good for public engagement.”
In regard to the Gilbert Centre's application to bring an injection site to Barrie, which was submitted to the province in April 2018, Nuttall called the lack of public consultation “very difficult to digest.”
Turner said the Gilbert Centre and its partners have done as much as they can in the midst of Barrie’s opioid crisis, which is one of the worst in Ontario.
“We’ve engaged the public as adequately as we can during this public health crisis,” Turner said. “There will be more opportunities for the public to provide feedback on our proposed locations in the new year. We thank Alex for providing us the opportunity to inform the public on the effectiveness, and efficacy of these sites.
“If folks would like more information on the overall opioid strategy, they can check out preventod.ca and see the work plans and evidence informing their work,” Turner added. “We’re happy to discuss with people their concerns, and any questions they may have."
Turner says the evidence does show safe injection sites work and reduce the number of opioid-related deaths.
“The evidence is clear on the effectiveness of theses sites; there are over 200 studies to show that they work,” Turner told BarrieToday on Monday.
But Turner said he doesn’t suspect Nuttall will change his stance.
“We’ve met with him, provided multiple studies and discussed his concerns,” Turner said. “I, however, can’t force people to change. In harm reduction, we meet people where they are at, and we have provided him the evidence, and the Simcoe Muskoka Opioid Strategy, which SCS (supervised consumption site) is part of.”
NEED FOR MORE TREATMENT SERVICES
In talking to people (nurses, social services, health-care professionals, former and current addicts) in Vancouver and Toronto, Nuttall said he learned “there just is not enough treatment and rehabilitation services available.”
And that needs to be done, he said, at the point when a person “can get the help that they need to turn their life around and put it back on a strong path, and that may come through an existing injection site, as well.”
Nuttall said current services are overloaded, noting repeated calls to one treatment facility were never returned after two weeks. “That means that we are failing these individuals who are actually wanting to get help,” he said.
“It’s not right and it’s not fair,” Nuttall said, adding “clearly there is more than enough money in the system to deal with this issue... but we’re not spending those dollars the right way.”
Nuttall said he does support the province’s move toward ensuring there are treatment and rehab services on site with any new injection site.
Nuttall characterized Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside as “devastating,” adding people should not be living in such poor conditions in a country as prosperous as Canada.
“And there’s no way we should be doing anything in support of people living in those conditions,” he added. “When someone doesn’t have a shirt and it’s minus-2, we as Canadians, we as a government, quite frankly, are failing our people and those most vulnerable in our community. … And that’s what we saw in those communities.”
The visits to Vancouver and Toronto were eye-opening for Nuttall.
“What became very apparent is there’s not a single answer or solution to this problem, there just isn’t, because there’s so many factors,” said Nuttall, noting in Barrie the homelessness problem predates the city’s opioid issue. “It’s gotten worse and it will continue to get worse until we find an answer.”
Nuttall said more will be done through his office with a campaign to spread more information about the opioid issue. He also wants to engage other MPs to begin a discussion around what’s happening in their ridings, because the opioid scourge is hitting small- to medium-sized cities particularly hard.
“There is currently no defined plan or strategy to deal with this,” he said. “It will take money and it will take time; we need to get it right as we’re going down this road.”
While Nuttall said he supports foreign aid to countries in need around the world, cutting back in some of those areas could be money better spent at home to help solve the opioid problem, he said.
To view Nuttall's report, click here.