Activists across Canada are using a made-in-Vancouver guide to push the law on drug-injection sites

In Toronto, Ottawa, and other cities, advocates are following a B.C. playbook for how to forge ahead with harm-reduction measures even if it means breaking the law

    1 of 2 2 of 2

      This Friday (August 25), activists in Ottawa plan to open an unsanctioned overdose-prevention site for drug users, the Straight has learned.

      It will follow a similar group of harm-reduction advocates establishing a site in Toronto on August 12.

      The two “pop-up” facilities offer drug users a relatively safe place to consume narcotics, usually via injection, where there are volunteers trained to use naloxone if somebody overdoses.

      The Toronto site—a tent pitched in Moss Park with tables and chairs beneath it—and plans for the Ottawa site resemble and operate in the mould of Vancouver’s first overdose-prevention site. That was originally a tent pitched facing a Downtown Eastside alley last September.

      All three sites look the same, consisting of little more than collapsible tents purchased from Canadian Tire. They’re staffed similarly with a combination of past and present drug users who work alongside volunteers with more formal health-care training. Their funding efforts are identical, using the online service GoFundMe to collect donations from the public.

      None of this is a coincidence. Activists across Canada are following a playbook, literally, that was drafted using the Vancouver site at 62 East Hastings Street as a model.

      The document is titled “Pop-Up Overdose Prevention Sites: Quick Start Guide.”

      A draft was obtained by the Straight. It provides a detailed, 13-point plan for how activists in Canada should break the law and establish illegal injection sites to serve as a stop-gap measure and challenge authorities to do more to prevent overdose deaths.

      “If you’re reading this document, you’ve probably gotten sick and tired of watching people you care about die of overdose,” it begins. “Very little effort has been made by provincial and federal governments to increase access to lifesaving overdose prevention services in Canada. So instead, people who use drugs and frontline workers have to take it upon themselves to save lives.”

      A guide drafted by activists from across Canada describes how to establish a relatively safe space for people to consume drugs.
      Travis Lupick

      Sarah Blyth is one of three cofounders of the first Vancouver site. In a telephone interview, she described the document as a “collective effort” that’s being put together by activists from across Canada.

      “It’s an easy, for-dummies guide for how to set up a life-saving, bureaucracy-free project,” she said.

      “When the crisis is over, hopefully, someday, we won’t need as many of these,” Blyth continued. “And that’s why they’re tents. When this is over, you can roll these up and take them away.”

      As of August 14, Vancouver had already set a record for overdose deaths in a single year. That number was 232, up from 231 during all of 2016, 136 the year before, 101 in 2014, and 80 in 2013. In Toronto and Ottawa, it’s believed that rates of fatal overdoses are on the rise but still lower than B.C.’s. Ontario however lags behind B.C. when it comes to data collection.

      The pop-up site in Toronto was established by members of the Toronto Harm Reduction Alliance after a sharp spike in overdoses and overdose deaths over the weekend of July 28.

      The guide for opening an overdose-prevention site without government support or authorization includes a detailed list of required materials, assistance in selecting a location, and even offers advice on how best to establish and maintain relationships with police and local media.

      “Outreach in the surrounding neighbourhood is important,” it states.

      “In some locations, where public drug use is common, it is a good idea to dedicate staff power to cleaning up discarded syringes and drug paraphernalia around the site. This helps build rapport with neighbors and police.”

      The guide also warns against burnout.

      “While we want peers and others to volunteers, it is important to prevent compassion fatigue,” it reads. “Strategies include asking people to volunteer a maximum of 4 hours at a time…and doing regular checks with the team.”

      Finally, there’s a warning titled “legal complications”.

      The document notes that in Canada, sanctioned facilities for the use of illicit narcotics require an exemption from federal drug laws. Since pop-up sites operate without first securing an exemption—a process that generally takes months or more than a year—people who use drugs and work there may be subject to arrest.

      “All interactions with the police should be documented,” it reads.

      The federal Liberal government has approved applications for 17 supervised-injection sites since it assumed office in November 2015. However, overdose deaths were already climbing across Canada when the Liberals took power and have continued on that trajectory.

      The morning the Toronto Harm Reduction Alliance opened its unsanctioned pop-up site on August 12, the police department there took a hands-off approach. Then, later that afternoon, Toronto Police Service announced the force would allow the improvised site to continue offering overdose-prevention services.

      "As Toronto knows, there is an absolute crisis on the streets right now," superintendent Heinz Kuck said at a news conference.

      "Although Toronto police doesn't necessarily agree totally with an injection site like this popping up, because we do have the aspect of illegal drugs coming and going, the crisis supersedes that at this point in time."

      Vancouver police acted in a similar manner. Then, in December 2016, B.C.'s provincial government announced it would actually adopt the pop-up model and open ad-hoc sites of its own.

      If all goes according to activists’ plan, Ottawa police will have to decide how to respond to a similar situation before the end of this week.