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Safe consumption sites making opioid crisis worse: former Timmins tourism boss

'When we launched the safe injection site we started to feed the dragon': Effectiveness of supervised consumption sites became the subject of debate during a session at this week's Northern Ontario Tourism Summit in Sault Ste. Marie
The booths at The Spot, Sudbury's supervised consumption site. The new steel counters help to see the substance more clearly and to aid with clean-up.

As Sault Ste. Marie’s proposal for a supervised consumption site is being finalized, a former Timmins city manager is publicly criticizing the site built in his city and calling for more treatment options to be offered instead.

CAO Malcolm White told SooToday on Thursday his long-awaited report to Sault Ste. Marie City Council will be on the agenda for its Dec. 18 meeting.

“We have had some promising discussions and I think everybody is going to be pleased, at least with the fact that we have a direction forward,” said White.

On Wednesday, the topic of supervised consumption sites was brought up elsewhere in Sault Ste. Marie during the Northern Ontario Tourism Summit in a session titled: Addressing the Mental Health, Addiction and Homelessness Crisis in Northern Ontario.

Among the panelists for the session were Mike Nadeau, CEO of the District of Sault Ste Marie Social Services Administration Board, and Justin Marchand, CEO of Ontario Aboriginal Housing Services.

The purpose of the discussion was to bring increased awareness to the crises and how they are affecting the industry, to learn about existing initiatives being implemented across the north, and how the tourism industry can lend support and be a part of a solution.

During the question and answer portion, the panelists were asked about supervised consumption sites by audience member Guy Lamarche, who retired as manager of tourism and events for the city of Timmins in 2020. He was awarded a lifetime achievement award by the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario in 2019.

The supervised consumption site in Timmins opened in July of 2022.

“It seems to me when we launched the safe injection site we started to feed the dragon. It seems to me the population of homelessness and mental health and drug addiction has grown exponentially with the introduction of a safe injection site,” said Lamarche. “The community partners, the residents, are not happy about this, obviously. The question is: why are we not collectively lobbying government for health care treating the elephant in the room instead of feeding it?”

”It seems to me there is a correlation between the opioid crisis and the level of crime that is happening in our respective communities,” he added.

Marchand agreed that the government needs to do more to expand treatment options and other health care supports, but he engaged Lamarche on the idea the Timmins site is attracting more people to use drugs.

“When you provide a safe site for people to use are you really increasing the number of people who decided they want to use or has it just become more visible?” Marchand asked. “I think that’s something we have seen through the pandemic, that when most of us were sheltering safely in our own homes we suddenly were able to easily see the people who didn’t have somewhere to safely shelter.”

“Having a safe consumption site isn’t increasing the use, it’s making it more visible. I can appreciate it does feel like there is more use,” he added.

Nadeau told Lamarche the same issues affecting Timmins are happening in other communities like Sault Ste. Marie and North Bay, which do not have supervised consumption sites.

”We are having the same challenges from crime, petty crime, vandalism to higher instances of violence," Nadeau said. "I don’t know if you can link a consumption site to what you are experiencing in the street, I think it’s a much bigger issue."

“But I think the injection site becomes an attractive magnet for those that are homeless in the communities that don’t have it," Lamarche responded. "So a lot of them are coming to Timmins because there is a safe injection site."

Marchand responded by noting that a supervised consumption site is not the solution to addiction, only a part of it.

“What we need to do then as a next step is, if there is a safe consumption site, here are treatment options for you, which we currently don’t have,” said Marchand. “So we are bringing people part of the way there and then we are leaving them there. I totally agree with you, we need to go that extra step.

“If someone decides they do want treatment, it’s a short window," Marchand added. "You have to be ready when that person says they are ready. I totally agree with you, we need to go the next step and have proper health care available."

Marty Kalagian, board chair of Destination Northern Ontario, added his thoughts to the conversation.

“The safe injection sites, as I see it, is nothing more than a humanity approach. They are either going to use under a bridge where they are going to die by themselves or they are going to do it in a safe area where they are under some kind of control and if there is a medical emergency someone is going to help them. I don’t see it increasing or decreasing anything,” he said. “Do you want them to die under a bridge or do you want them to be somewhere you might be able to help them and maybe be able to bring them back into some kind of social circle moving forward?”

New applications for safe consumption sites have been halted after the province launched a "critical incident review" of South Riverdale Community Health Centre in east-end Toronto, where a passerby, 44-year-old Karolina Huebner-Makurat, was killed by a stray bullet from a fight that broke out in the area around the site in July. 

In an October interview with SooToday, Sault Ste. Marie Mayor Matthew Shoemaker called that decision by the province "despicable." He doubled down on that assessment during video interview earlier this week with Village Media editor-in-chief Michael Friscolanti.

"This creates such an injustice and a division between north and south because in southern Ontario you have a number of supervised consumption sites that are approved and those that are approved aren’t going to have their approvals revoked," Shoemaker said. “It’s unfair and it’s treating northern Ontario residents as second-class citizens."

He said he hopes northern Ontario Conservative MPPs, whose communities are disproportionately affected by the opioid crisis, are able to bend the Ford government's ear enough to get the approval process back on track.

In the meantime, city staff is working with local community stakeholders to determine what the eventual site would look like, who is going to provide the startup capital and who is going to operate it, among other considerations.

“The hope is that the province will be quick in making its decision but for ideological reasons, frankly, I think they will purposefully not be quick in making their decision and I think that is going to significantly affect our ability to tackle this challenge in the coming — however long it takes until the province changes course," said Shoemaker.

Kenneth Armstrong

About the Author: Kenneth Armstrong

Kenneth Armstrong is a news reporter and photojournalist who regularly covers municipal government, business and politics and photographs events, sports and features.
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