By Erica Howes
Sean Leblanc survived an opium addiction and Hepatitis C but says he only made it through alive “by the skin of his teeth.” He has woken up in different bathrooms across the city, overdosed multiple times and said he has seen too many friends die of drug abuse. At a Parliament Hill rally yesterday in favour of safe injection sites, Leblanc shared his harrowing experiences.
“These things are all really preventable,” he said in front of about 100 cheering supporters with bright signs.
Leblanc, the founder and chairperson of Ottawa’s Drug Users Advocacy League is a strong supporter of opening an Ottawa safe injection site, a proposed harm reduction plan that has sparked mixed reactions within the community.
But judging by the voices of support who braved the cold to stand, cheer and march in yesterday’s rally, Leblanc is not alone.
“Safe injection sites are a place of dignity and respect of people’s voices around their health. It’s often security for people in immediate crisis and trusting them to take control over their lives instead of dictating their lives,” said Catherine Hacksel, spokesperson of the Campaign for Safer Consumption Sites in Ottawa.
The Campaign and Ottawa’s Drug Users Advocacy League were the two main organizations behind the rally organized by Algonquin College students in the social service worker program.
Hacksel spoke about the proposed Bill C-2, which would strip safe injection sites of their current exemption from drug laws. She said Vancouver’s Insite program, the first North American safe injection site which opened in 2003, is an example of the success of these sites and a reason why Bill C-2 “doesn’t respect” drug consumers.
Insite serves as a safe place for people to consume drugs while also gaining access to health care services including addiction counselling, infectious disease treatment, housing and community supports.
According to its website, Insite has prevented 35 HIV infections each year, saved $8.7 million in health care costs and reduced fatal overdoses in the vicinity of the Insite centre by 35 per cent.
The Supreme Court of Canada in 2011 stated, “Insite saves lives. Its benefits have been proven.” Now, with the proposed Bill C-2 these amendments may be taken away.
Hacksel said Ottawa’s drug abuse issue “isn’t on the same scale as Vancouver,” but a safe injection site here would be based on their model and ideally placed in the ByWard Market—where there is the most drug traffic in the city. She said the support the movement has received through rallies such as this one is proof the community cares.
“We’re going to shed light on this issue because people are dying in this community and they need to be recognized right now,” she said during her speech, which was followed by loud cheers and applause from the crowd.
Darren Noftaff didn’t yell as loudly as the organizers or hold a sign during the rally but he did mouth the words to every cheer and was a familiar face to the loudest voices. Noftaff calls himself the biggest supporter and introduced himself as an IV drug-user and a living example of how safe injection sites save lives.
While living in Vancouver, Noftaff said he overdosed on drugs and became unresponsive.
“My heart stopped,” he said. Luckily, he wasn’t alone at the time.
Noftaff had been injecting near Insite in Vancouver and says, it was this centre that saved his life.
“They had to put adrenaline straight through my breastplate into my heart. If I was in a public bathroom or a back alley, I would be dead,” he said. “There would have been no one there to bring me back to life. If I wasn’t brought back to life I wouldn’t be able to be here today advocating for safe consumption sites.”
With the help of social workers at Insite, Noftaff was able to detox and move to Ottawa five years ago. He said from his experience at Insite, these sites provide more than a place to inject.
“It’s not just about the addict going and using drugs, there are social workers there and nurses,” he said. “If an addict is having a hard time and wants to talk to somebody, there’s someone there to talk to. There’s support.”
Lisa Grinham, co-founder of Safer Ottawa, a group dedicated to addressing issues of homelessness and addiction, agreed that support and treatment programs are needed but not in the form of a safe injection site.
“We already have an overwhelming amount of panhandlers and shelters and petty crimes in this area,” she said. “Safe consumption sites are a Band-Aid solution…that’s fire to the can of gasoline.”
Grinham said treatment centres and access to health care services for people with addiction are needed in the Ottawa community but implementing a centre in the middle of one of the city’s biggest tourist destinations will “not be pretty.”
“We in the community are the ones who are going to have to deal with it,” she said.
Grinham said the area surrounding Vancouver’s Insite is incomparable to Ottawa’s ByWard Market.
“There’s so many generational houses and historical sites, everything that’s been here forever, these are people’s homes,” she said. “In Vancouver there was a heavy needle use in that area to start with, now I can’t even call it a slum, that would be a compliment.”
She also said there are strict regulations in Vancouver prohibiting the opening of a safe injection site within certain vicinities to schools and public buildings, guidelines she said would be “thrown out the window” with the proposed ByWard Market location in Ottawa, which is a few blocks from an elementary school and daycare.
Mayor Jim Watson and Ottawa police chief Charles Bordeleau have released statements in the past year opposing the idea.
Grinham, a strong supporter of Bill C-2, said it is expected to be voted on and decided within the next few months and said she is confident “in the end, common sense will win.”
Dr. Mark Tyndall, head of infectious disease at the Ottawa Hospital has been researching harm reduction strategies for over 20 years and conducted a number of research projects in Vancouver looking at the Insite program.
He said the program has turned “a terrible situation into a much better one,” but healthcare professionals in Ontario are still hesitant at the idea of implementing a safe injection site here.
“It’s been seen as a radical idea, but think about what we’re doing now. We take people, the most vulnerable in our city who have addiction, and ask the police and the criminal justice system to fix it but they can’t,” he said. “We have to take this back as a health issue.”
Tyndall said Ottawa has one of the highest HIV rates in Canada and safe injection sites are an easy solution to eliminating this statistic.
“We can stop HIV transmission with harm reduction. We have the tools to stop people from getting HIV. We have the tools to help prevent people from overdosing. We know how to do that right now and we’re not doing enough about it.”
Tyndall’s name comes up often in discussion on harm reduction and although he has advocated at various events, Ottawa Public Health is still not completely supportive of the idea.
Dr. Isra Levy, Ottawa’s medical officer of health stated Ottawa Public Health “is monitoring the community discussion on supervised injection sites; however, it has no plans to open such a site in Ottawa,” he said in a statement on Friday.
“We recognize that supervised consumption facilities may be a useful part of the spectrum of clinical health services in communities that wish to have such services,” Levy said.