Public deliberately left out of consultation on safe injection sites, claims group

A central Edmonton resident says she has evidence city officials planned the locations of supervised drug injection sites long before community residents were consulted.

Documents obtained through freedom of information law indicate locations selected 'years ago,' says resident

'The locations were decided several years ago and nobody came out to talk to the community about them,' says resident Cris Basualdo. (Lydia Neufeld/CBC)

A central Edmonton resident says she has evidence city officials planned the locations of supervised drug injection sites long before community residents were consulted.

And the city strategy included a decision not to engage in early consultations with the communities involved before making the locations public, says Cris Basualdo, one of several residents who have joined with members of the Chinese business community to voice concerns about the process for selecting the sites.

"The documents really show how closely the city has been involved in this process," said Basualdo. "The locations were decided several years ago and nobody came out to talk to the community about them."

A news conference was held by the advisory group Access to Medically Supervised Injection Services Edmonton (AMSISE) in February, announcing the Boyle McCauley Health Centre, Boyle Street Community Services and the George Spady Centre as the three proposed locations for the drug injection sites.

A freedom of information request submitted by Basualdo in May netted hundreds of documents disclosing how plans for the sites were developed.

'It is so disturbing'

Among them are minutes from an AMSISE meeting held in October 2015, which say that Ward 6 Coun. Scott McKeen "is willing to be the champion" on city council for establishing supervised injection sites.

"I am not denying that," said McKeen on Friday. "They [drug injection sites] were going to be in Boyle McCauley and Central MacDougall. Where else were they going to be?"
'What I thought was strange ... the specific sites were named and my email inbox and phone didn't ring off the hook,' says Coun. Scott McKeen. (CBC)

Several documents indicate McKeen was reluctant to disclose the proposed locations of the sites, and only did so because federal legislation calls for transparency, said Basualdo.

"It is so disturbing, and I was so disappointed to read that," she said.

Once the city was forced to reveal the locations, Basualdo cites a string of emails dating back to November 2016 that outline "what seems to be a deliberate attempt to not involve the local community."

"Our intent will be to inform and educate; we will not be asking for approval," wrote Jay Freeman, executive director of housing and homelessness for the city, in an email to McKeen dated Nov. 29, 2016.

Once the proposed safe injection sites were publicly announced, McKeen said he expected to get feedback, but it never came.

"What I thought was strange ... my email inbox and phone didn't ring off the hook," he said.

Opposition started building following a town hall meeting in March organized by Edmonton Griesbach MP Kerry Diotte, who represents the community near the Boyle McCauley Health Centre.

Group has hired lawyer to address Ottawa

Further opposition was voiced by community residents and business owners in Chinatown at back-to-back city council meetings in May.

Critics mainly argued against a concentration of the sites in the downtown core and questioned the lack of a consultation process.

At those meetings, councillors debated sending letters endorsing the proposed locations to the provincial and federal governments.

"The province was putting the city under a lot of pressure to get it done," said McKeen. "We need your letter, we need your letter, we need your letter."

While the sites are a federal and provincial initiative, somehow the city and council have become the villains, suggested McKeen.

The province is responsible for funding services at the sites. But in order for the city to provide medically supervised services at any facility, a federal exemption is required under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

"The federal government has given us what seems to be an arbitrarily short timeline to provide a submission to them of the community's concerns," said Basualda. 

The latest communication on the issue from federal government officials states there is a deadline of Oct. 5 and after that a decision will be made, she said.

Basualda, along with several other residents and the Chinese business community, have banded together and hired a lawyer to help them with a submission about their concerns to the federal government.