Health Canada has granted an exemption that paves the way for Ottawa's first supervised injection site to open in the city's Sandy Hill neighbourhood — potentially as soon as this fall.
On Wednesday, the federal department gave the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre the green light to build the site at its Nelson Street headquarters.
The community centre has proposed a facility that would provide supervised injections to between 80 and 150 people a day, many of whom already use the centre for other reasons.
"The work of the last five-plus years has come to fruition," said Rob Boyd, the director of the centre's Oasis program, on Wednesday after Health Canada made their decision public.
'A bit surreal'
"It's a bit surreal right now, when I think about the struggle and the efforts over the years, that we're finally here at this point," Boyd said. "I think it's significant for Ottawa. I think it's a recognition that the opioid crisis and the overdose crisis are here in Ottawa."
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In January, the centre's board of directors voted to submit their application to Health Canada, shortly after Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins expressed his support for the supervised injection site plans in a letter to Jane Philpott, his federal counterpart.
The application was necessary since Health Canada has to grant an exemption under the federal Controlled Drugs and Services Act before such a site could open.
Boyd said the exemption is "conditional upon a final inspection," meaning the centre has to build the supervised injection room before getting absolute approval.
"Then they come in to inspect it. So now our focus is going to be on getting those renovations completed," he said.
Boyd said he expected the site would open in October.
Mayor remains opposed
In a statement, Mayor Jim Watson reiterated his opposition to supervised injection sites, while also expressing "hope" that his worries would eventually be proven unfounded.
"I would rather see scarce health dollars invested into treatment facilities, so that we may help those who struggle with addictions. I am also concerned about the potential of increased criminal activity near these sites," Watson said.
"However, we gave responsibility for these health decisions to our public health board, [which] has supported Sandy Hill's request for a supervised consumption site. I very much hope that my concerns are not realized and these citizens do get the help they need to overcome their challenging addictions."
Charles Bordeleau, Ottawa's police chief, has also expressed concerns in the past about public safety.
On average, 48 people die in Ottawa of drug-related causes each year, according to the centre. Ottawa also has Ontario's highest rates of HIV and Hepatitis C among people who inject drugs, according to health unit statistics.