'A slap in the face:' City declines Ontario's offer to help Overdose Prevention Ottawa

Overdose Prevention Ottawa and councillors who support the work of the volunteer group are disappointed the City of Ottawa declined an offer from the province to winterize the unsanctioned supervised consumption site.

Province had offered a portable generator, heater and EMAT tent for Raphael Brunet park

Leila Attar, a co-organizer with Overdose Prevention Ottawa, said the city's decision to decline help from the Ontario government on winterizing their site is a 'slap in the face.' (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

Volunteers at the unsanctioned supervised injection site in Lowertown, as well as city councillors who support their work, are disappointed the City of Ottawa declined an offer from the provincial government to winterize the site.

The group was excited the province was extending the same offer of help in the nation's capital as it had at the Moss Park overdose prevention site in Toronto, said Leila Attar, a co-organizer with Overdose Prevention Ottawa.

"For us to hear that they just flat-out declined it without consulting the people that are on the ground, it's honestly like a slap in the face," she said. "It's just disheartening to hear that."

The volunteers have shut down the site for a handful of nights in the past month due to high winds and heavy rain.

"There's rain, there's cold, like the ground is muddy. There's just so many things that we need and supplies that we need and our volunteers need to be taken care of," she said. 

"Those services that the province could have offered would've helped us and instead we're here shivering and stepping in wet ground because we don't have any help."

Mayor wants resources to go to permanent sites

Mayor Jim Watson told CBC Ottawa Friday he would prefer for the province's offer of money to go to the interim supervised injection site two blocks away on Clarence Street or to the expected sites at the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre and Shepherds of Good Hope, which will have federal approval.

Attar said that ignores the urgent need OPO volunteers are helping provide at their site and the city should not try to freeze them out.

"Quite frankly, I think the mayor is incredibly misinformed and uneducated on the concept of harm reduction. He's been an active person to say he doesn't support it. I think really he needs to see that what we're doing here is life-saving work," she said.

Overdose Prevention Ottawa says delays with federally-approved supervised injection sites and low capacity at a temporary city-run site have meant their site is still needed. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

The low capacity at the city-run supervised injection site on Clarence Street, as well as delays in opening the Sandy Hill and Shepherds of Good Hope sites, have made it so OPO is still needed, Attar said.

"There is a need for our service right here and if he can't see that, then shame on him because lives will be lost if we're forced to shut down without another service being operated."

'A heartless decision'

Coun. Jeff Leiper said it was unclear who was speaking on behalf of the City of Ottawa in declining the province's offer.

"I think this is a heartless decision. The OPO site is clearly facing challenges as the temperature plunges, but there is also a very fundamental question of who speaks for the city," Leiper said Friday night.

"There is only one body that can speak on behalf of the 'City of Ottawa,' in the absence of any policy otherwise, and that is city council. That's 23 councillors plus a mayor; majority rules. I think we've reached a point where these discussions need to happen around the council table."

A spokesperson for Ottawa Public Health said Friday afternoon they were not informed of the province's offer or the city's response.

Councillors Leiper, Catherine McKenney, Tobi Nussbaum and Diane Deans signed a letter in late September calling for a transition plan so the Raphael Brunet Park site could be wound down when the federally-approved sites opened.

If that transition plan had been put together there might have been a basis to decline the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care's offer to help OPO run in the winter, Leiper said.

He said it would be premature to close down the unsanctioned site while its services are needed.

He and other councillors who support OPO's work will be talking this weekend about how the issue can be brought before council, he said.

The next full meeting of city council is November 8.