City leaders showing little will to move in on illegal injection tent

Ottawa's mayor, police chief and the city councillor for Rideau-Vanier all say they want the illegal supervised drug injection site operating out of tents in a Lowertown park shut down — but none of them seems to want to take responsibility for making that happen.

Volunteers running supervised tent say they won't shut down while there's still demand from drug users

Overdose Prevention Ottawa opened this supervised injection site in Lowertown's Raphael Brunet Park on Aug. 25, 2017. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

Ottawa's mayor, police chief and the city councillor for Rideau-Vanier all say they want the illegal supervised drug injection site operating out of tents in a Lowertown park shut down — but none of them seems to want to take responsibility for making that happen.

Now that a city-run supervised injection site is operating out of an Ottawa Public Health clinic on Clarence Street, Mayor Jim Watson wants the tent site, which is run by volunteers with Overdose Prevention Ottawa, to fold.

"The reality is that we have a legitimate, federally approved, provincially funded, city-operated facility that is safe, that is secure, that is clean, that is run by health professionals, and it's in an appropriate location," Watson told reporters after Wednesday's council meeting.

"It's time for that volunteer group to go and work with public health and give the park back to the children and families in the Lowertown neighbourhood."

Coun. Mathieu Fleury, whose ward includes the park, agrees. Both Fleury and Watson have said they'd like police and the city's bylaw department to take some sort of action.

City can't issue orders to police

But there are a couple problems with that, the first being that city officials cannot legally direct police to take a specific action.

I'm going to leave that to the professionals in bylaw and police.- Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson

"I'm going to leave that to the professionals in bylaw and police," Watson said when asked about his next step. "They're obviously aware that what's going on there is illegal and it's up to them ultimately to, if they're going to take any decisive move, to make that decision."

The second problem is that Ottawa police appear reticent to move in on peaceful volunteers, even if they are flouting the law.

Earlier this week Ottawa police Chief Charles Bordeleau told CBC he doesn't believe the city park is an appropriate place for an injection site, but he said police would "wait for the city to give us direction as to exactly what they want to do with respect to their property."

Unsanctioned, temporary injection sites have popped up in large cities across the country. So far, no police force has shut one down.
Andrew Hendriks and Kira Mandryk of Ottawa Public Health show off the two booths where people can inject drugs under supervision of a nurse at a clinic on Clarence Street. (Radio-Canada)

Pop-up tent not ready to pack it in

On Tuesday, only eight people visited the city-run site, which has two injection booths, while Overdose Prevention Ottawa said they had 36 visits on the same day, following more than 1,000 visits over the past four weeks.

The apparent demand for service is why volunteers have no immediate plans to shut down their operation.
Robert Jamison is a peer support worker who is volunteering at the illegal supervised injection site. (Reno Patry/CBC)

"The numbers tell you there is still a need here," said Robert Jamison, a peer support worker at the tent. He added that the volunteers want to work with public health officials to encourage more people to use their site.

"We are all in the business of saving lives."

Watson expressed skepticism over whether the tent is getting as many visitors as reported.

"I don't think you can verify how many lives have been saved, I don't think you can verify how many people have gone in," said the mayor.

However, Watson said he'd be open to keeping the city's interim facility open on Clarence Street even after the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre has opened five permanent injection booths at its centre.

With files from Aislinn May