Safe injection sites 'an absolute must,' says priest after 5 funerals in 1 month

As Edmontonians from neighbourhoods that could host safe injection sites prepared to rally against them Saturday, the priest of an inner-city church watched from the window as three people prepared to shoot up on the playground.

Rally against safe injection sites Saturday draws 300-400 people to city hall

Rev. James Holland of Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples is in favour of a safe injection site in the neighbourhood. He said he's buried members of the parish who may have been saved if they were using drugs in a safe environment. (Roberta Bell/CBC)

As Edmontonians from neighbourhoods that could host safe injection sites prepared to rally against them Saturday, the priest of an inner-city church watched from the window as three people prepared to shoot up on the playground. 

Rev. James Holland has led Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples on 96th Street at 108th Avenue for 22 years. During that time, he's befriended a lot of people in the area — including many who live on the streets — where they regularly use drugs. 
A discarded sterile water container lies on the steps of a side entrance to the sanctuary of Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples. Sterile water is a harm-reduction supply used to mix drugs before injecting. (Roberta Bell/CBC)

"They are members of this community and we've got to do our best to protect all members of the community," Holland said Saturday. "It includes those who are addicted to drugs."

Holland is in favour of the safe injection site proposed in the McCauley neighbourhood as well as the three others proposed throughout Edmonton, which now have council support as of this week.

The city will write a letter seeking that status at the following locations: Boyle McCauley Health Centre, Boyle Street Community Services and the George Spady Centre. The fourth one, for inpatients only, would be at the Royal Alexandra Hospital. 

To run the sites, the city needs a federal exemption to the Criminal Code, provincial and police support.

'This is just going to make it worse'

About 300-400 people who felt differently marched from Canada Place to city hall to protest the safe injection sites. Gordon Stamp and his wife, McCauley residents for 13 years, were there.

Stamp said he's concerned the politicians and social service workers in favour of the sites don't actually reside there, where people are fighting "tooth and nail" to make it feel safe. 

"Now they're putting safe injection sites, or as I call them 'legalized crack houses.' That's all they are, they're legalized crack houses," Stamp said Saturday. 

Stamp said he doesn't believe people are going to do drugs at the sites and stay there. 
Gordon Stamp said he doesn't want a "legalized crack house" in the McCauley neighbourhood, where he has lived for 13 years. (Gaetan Lamarre/CBC)

"They're putting them back on the streets. Now, we'll have all these crack addicts walking around high," Stamp said. 

"This is just going to make it worse. This is not a solution. They're not getting people off drugs. They're not getting them jobs. They're not giving them life skills.

"All they're doing is saying, 'Here's a place you can shoot up. We'll have a nurse, we'll have an ambulance, we'll have a doctor. You can do your drugs right here.' "

Rev. James Holland doesn't feel the same way. He said it will take "a long time" to clean up the streets, but safe injection sites are "an absolute must."

"If we bring them into a safe place, we have a chance to help them," he said.

In a statement, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said safe injection sites "should not be made the centrepiece of a drug strategy" because alone, they do not address addiction or public safety. 

"The concern of Bishops regarding harm reduction measures, however, should not be confused with medically supervised drug substitution — a best practice used in the weaning process that has helped many sufferers reach the goal of abstinence," the statement said. 
Protesters rally at city hall Saturday morning against safe injection sites. (Gaetan Lamarre/CBC)

Norman Wang of the Edmonton Taiwanese Association shops regularly in Chinatown, which is close to many of the proposed safe injection sites.

He said he's not opposed to the sites, but he thinks they need to be thought through more carefully. 

"We have a compassion for people. They need the services," Wang said at the rally Saturday. "But they need more preparation, more discussion, more investigation around the communities about the possibilities."

'People are human beings'

Earlier in the week, Holland said there were people sleeping on the steps leading to the side entrance to the sanctuary. 

"I went to clean up the cardboard that they had used as bedding and there was evidence of needles and there was a lot of blood splattered onto the cardboard," Holland said. "If they had overdosed in the middle of the night, they would have died."

Holland said in the past month, he's buried five people who fatally overdosed on drugs. He knew each one of them through the church. 

He said he didn't see the neighbourhood residents who have been vocal against safe injection sites at the funerals of the people who overdosed. 

"No one cares enough to say, 'You have value. You are important. You are a human being.' And these people who are opposing it aren't really saying that," Holland said. " 'Go down by the river and shoot yourself up and die' is what they're really saying.

"We've got to recognize people are human beings no matter what situation they are in in life."

Trees and shrubbery are trimmed alongside Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples in areas where people commonly use drugs. Rev. James Holland said this way it's easier to keep an eye out for people overdosing. (Roberta Bell/CBC)

roberta.bell@cbc.ca

@roberta__bell

With files from Marie-Pier Mercier