Ottawa·ELECTION 2018

Watson pledges help for injection sites if province pulls funding

If the Ontario government cuts funding to Ottawa's supervised injection sites, the city of Ottawa will have to take over the task of "helping vulnerable residents in our community," Mayor Jim Watson told CBC Friday.

Mayor stops short of promising city's financial support

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said Ottawa 'would have to see how we can help maintain' supervised drug injection sites if the province pulls its funding. (CBC)

If the Ontario government cuts funding to Ottawa's supervised injection sites, the city of Ottawa will have to take over the task of "helping vulnerable residents in our community," Mayor Jim Watson told CBC Friday.

But he stopped short of pledging to fund the sites, despite telling the Ottawa Citizen that after exhausting financial support from the federal government, "we'd have to find the dollars within our own budget."

The city would have to see how we can help maintain some of these important services.- Mayor Jim Watson

Whether the city bails out the sites or not, Watson's statements represent a departure from his stance in the past, when he said he'd prefer scarce public health resources to go toward drug rehabilitation.

During his re-election campaign, the mayor has softened on the issue, conceding the supervised injection sites helped stabilize Ottawa's opioid crisis.

His most recent statement is the clearest indication yet that the mayor has warmed to the sites.

"If the province cuts their funding and Health Canada does not step in, the city would have to see how we can help maintain some of these important services," the mayor said in an emailed statement to CBC Friday.

He did not specifically address the issue of funding.

The goal of the sites is to catch overdoses as they happen and prevent deaths by administering life-saving naloxone treatment, which blocks the effects of opioids.

Ottawa now has four supervised injection sites: at the Sandy Hill and Somerset West community health centres; beside the Shepherds of Good Hope; and another site run by Ottawa Public Health.

The Sandy Hill site, for example, costs about $900,000 per year to run.

Province reviewing funding

The provincial government has put a freeze on funding for new drug consumption programs in Ontario while it reviews whether or not to continuing funding those that already exist.

Watson's main mayoral challenger, Clive Doucet, said he supports spending city dollars to support the programs if the province withdraws its funds. He made the declaration in response to CBC's all-candidates survey.

At the time of the survey, Watson responded that he believes upper levels of government should continue funding the sites.

See what all the candidates had to say on the issue here.

A stressful time

The situation has been stressful for front-line workers who have spent years trying to hold the crisis at bay.

"I didn't realize that I was holding my breath so much," said Rob Boyd, the director of the harm reduction program at the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre.

The number of overdose-related deaths in Ottawa rose from 20 in 2011 to 64 in 2017, sparking emergency responses from community health organizations.

Without supervised injection sites in Ottawa the death toll would be much higher, Boyd said.

He said he hopes the city doesn't have to pitch in, since health care is a provincial responsibility.

Rob Boyd is director of the harm reduction program at the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre. (CBC)

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