Advocates urge Manitoba to get on board with supervised consumption sites
More than 80 groups signed a letter asking province to immediately support several harm reduction measures
Harm reduction advocates say Manitoba's mental health minister missed the mark in her response to calls for a supervised consumption site in the province.
At a Wednesday news conference about addictions treatment, Mental Health and Community Wellness Minister Sarah Guillemard responded to a question about Manitoba's perceived lack of urgency over rising overdose deaths by saying, "the strongest harm reduction strategy is actually to encourage individuals off of the drugs that are harmful."
"Our message has always been that there is no safe amount of illicit drugs. You don't know what's in it," Guillemard said, adding the government hasn't yet found a model of supervised consumption site that would work for Manitoba.
"If you are worried about that, we have treatment spaces, we have [rapid access to addictions medicine] clinics to help to stabilize you and connect you to resources so you don't have to be dependent on these drugs."
Thomas Linner, provincial director of the Manitoba Health Coalition, said that seems disingenuous.
"The mental health minister knows that what she is just saying is not harm reduction. Just saying no is not harm reduction," said Linner, whose organization was one of more than 80 organizations that signed a letter this week calling on the province to provide immediate support for supervised consumption sites, among other measures to address overdose deaths.
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"Treatment is fine. All kinds of models can be there and can have some kind of impact, but if you want to change the course of overdose deaths, the only way to impact that is through harm reduction measures like safe supply and supervised consumption sites."
Shohan Illsley, executive director of the Manitoba Harm Reduction Network, said Guillemard's suggestion is not a kind of harm reduction she's ever heard of.
"Really, the strongest harm reduction strategy is to meet people where they're at in their substance use with no conditions and to ensure that none of our strategies are grounded in coercion," said Illsley, whose organization also signed the letter to the province.
Manitoba recorded 407 overdose deaths in 2021. That was a record for the province — for the second year in a row.
According to Manitoba's chief medical examiner, 215 people had died of overdose-related deaths as of the end of June.
That suggests the province is on track to set another record this year — which is why Linner said taking quick action on harm reduction measures like supervised consumption sites is so important.
"People do not die in supervised consumption sites, and it is the difference between today and tomorrow and the opportunity for new choices for so many people," he said.
Sites already open elsewhere
Several Canadian cities already have supervised consumption sites of their own. That includes Saskatoon, where Prairie Harm Reduction opened a site in 2020.
Executive director Kayla Demong said her organization has been able to run their site without the support of the Saskatchewan government by relying on private donations and fundraising.
"We had a lot of support, and a lot of vocal support, from our mayor, from our chief of police, from our chief of fire. We had higher-level people in the health authority standing up at the time and saying that this was needed," Demong said.
Winnipeg Mayor Scott Gillingham said he hasn't ruled out the possibility of a supervised consumption site, though he previously said he wouldn't support one.
But he said it would need the support of the province — and like Guillemard, he said Manitoba just hasn't found the right template yet.
"There needs to be the right model," Gillingham said.
"There'd be other resources that need to be co-located with any supervised consumption site so that individuals who are struggling can get the whole host of assistance that they need."
But to advocates like Linner — and the dozens of others who wrote to the province asking for urgent action — those plans can't come together soon enough.
"We have [an] entire network of community organizations, of health organizations, of experts in the field who are telling you that they … have models of care that will work for Manitoba, will work for Winnipeg and can be brought in place on short order. All it needs is the support," Linner said, noting Manitoba is the only province West of Atlantic Canada without a supervised consumption site.
"You may not think that you have seen the model that works for Manitoba, but I'm telling you right now that you have people dying every day in Manitoba, so we need to do something that works — and harm reduction is what is proven to work."
With files from Cameron MacLean and Andrew Wildes