British Columbia

School board, mayor and parents fight location of addiction support centre on Vancouver Island

The site of an upcoming centre to support substance users in Duncan, B.C., is located near four schools. But it's also near people who need the support most, according to Island Health.

Cowichan Valley School Board says it has presented no alternative sites

Drug use supplies are shown at the current overdose prevention site in Duncan, B.C. (Kathryn Marlow/CBC)

The site of a planned centre to support substance users in Duncan, B.C., no longer appears to be up for debate. 

But the local school board, municipal council and a group of concerned parents are still pushing back against the location, minutes from nearby schools.

Candace Spilsbury, chair of the Cowichan Valley School Board, supports the development of more support services for people who use drugs in the area and says she has actively advocated for it. 

However, she doesn't think the centre should be built so close to where kids walk to school, noting several students have already reported seeing open-air drug use in the area.

"This is representative of social ills that we don't feel is appropriate for young people," Spilsbury told CBC News. 

The new Wellness and Recovery Centre is slated to open at 5878 York Road by the middle of next year.

The centre will offer people who use drugs primary care, harm reduction — including overdose prevention — and on-site drug treatment. A staff of 50, including nurses, social workers and addiction specialists, will work there.

The property in question is located a few blocks from three schools, including an elementary school. A Christian school is also nearby. 

Petition grows

Kitty-corner from the planned support centre sits an emergency homeless shelter with an attached facility for those "too intoxicated to find services elsewhere."

Spilsbury said students already don't feel safe walking along that block. She fears incidents involving drug use will only rise when the centre opens. 

"Over time, it has become an area that has too many people needing that kind of support," said Spilsbury, though she still firmly backs the shelter's existence.

Operations at Duncan's current overdose prevention site at 221 Trunk Road will cease after the Wellness and Recovery Centre opens in 2021. (Kathryn Marlow/CBC )

A local citizen action group has received more than 1,000 signatures on a petition against the centre's planned location.

The petition focuses most on the inclusion of a safe injection site, arguing that Island Health and other local authorities are "building an inner city around our kids." 

The group predicts the centre will bring with it an onslaught of verbal and sexual harassment, drug trafficking and sex work. 

The petition also claims the centre will provide users with drugs during operating hours. However, Island Health says it won't.

The health authority says a safe supply of heroin or other street drugs won't be available. It says the treatment team will offer some users non-intoxicating pharmaceuticals like methadone to help prevent withdrawal and reduce cravings.

In response to the backlash, North Cowichan Mayor Al Siebring sent a letter last month urging the health authority to pause development until further consultation with the surrounding neighbourhood.

While critics lament the concentration of services for those experiencing homelessness, mental health issues and drug addiction, Island Health said it chose the York Street location for that very reason.

"These types of services need to be located where the people [who need them] are," said Dr. Shannon Waters, medical health officer for the Cowichan Valley.

She said the health authority spent a year and half searching for locations and this was the only one available.

Security and needle recovery

Island Health has promised security and needle recovery teams will roam the immediate area surrounding the centre.

Waters said if the "multi-pronged approach" to the local opioid crisis is successful, residents should notice the area improve rather than worsen.

Meanwhile, Spilsbury said no alternative locations for the centre have been identified by the board or by parent groups opposed to the planned site. 

A major part of the backlash, she said, stems from a lack of public consultation during the search for a location. 

"When they say they have looked at all avenues, I guess we have to trust that," said Spilsbury. 

This year has seen a dramatic increase in overdose deaths across B.C. Seven months into 2020, Vancouver Island has already reported 165 fatal overdoses, two more than all of 2019. 

With files from On the Island