Thunder Bay

Delayed report into safe consumption services in northwestern Ontario now expected by end of March

Last year, the Northwestern Health Unit had a safe consumption services feasibility study done for four communities. The results have been delayed until later this March. Meanwhile, community advocates in Kenora are calling for action now amid rising overdoses and HIV cases.

Safe consumption services feasibility study assessed needs in Kenora, Fort Frances, Dryden and Sioux Lookout

A close-up shot of medical supplies, like gloves, boxes of syringes, and plastic containers filled with other items.
Supplies at Path 525, the only safe consumption site in northwestern Ontario, located in Thunder Bay, Ont. Staff reversed 151 overdoses at the site in 2022. (Logan Turner/CBC)

A key report outlining how safe consumption services can expand in northwesterrn Ontario is expected to be released this spring as HIV cases and overdoses continue to rise in Kenora. 

The Northwestern Health Unit worked with LBCG Consulting for Impact Inc. to conduct a feasibility study into supervised consumption services last year. The study looks at the potential for these services in Kenora, Dryden, Fort Frances, and Sioux Lookout.

The results, which include surveys from the general public, community partners and clients, were first expected to be made public in October. CBC News has followed up several times since then to see if the report would be ready, but the timeline was pushed back. The report is now expected to be released in the next two to three weeks, likely around the end of March. 

A spokesperson told CBC News the health unit needs more time to prepare its communications materials, including FAQs and key message documents, surrounding the report and a related webinar.

Safe consumption sites are places people can go to use drugs they buy from the street in the presence of health-care providers. They have access to new, unused needles and supplies and can have their drugs tested so they know what they're consuming. Staff have naloxone kits on hand to reverse the effects of an overdose.

"All four of our communities are very different," said Gillian Lunny, the Northwestern Health Unit's manager of sexual health and harm reduction. "What might be needed and what that might look like in one community can be quite different than another."

But she said these sites save lives, and are also good connection points for people to access wraparound services.

Meanwhile, community advocates say Kenora has already seen a lot of despair this year. The community coalition Kenora Moving Forward reports there were five drug-related deaths in the city among young people from late December to the end of January.

Insp. Jeffrey Duggan, detachment commander of the Kenora OPP, said there were four overdose-related deaths investigated by police in 2022.

Public Health Ontario's interactive opioid tool shows eight drug-related deaths between January and June 2022 in the Northwestern Health Unit, though this doesn't include Kenora-specific data.

'We're programmed from day one that drugs are bad'

The only safe consumption site in northwestern Ontario is Path 525, located in Thunder Bay, Ont. Staff reversed 151 overdoses in 2022 and have never had a death on-site, said Jennifer Lawrance, director of health services for Norwest Community Health Centres, which runs Path 525.

While she wasn't directly involved in setting up the site when it opened in November 2018, Lawrance said public engagement in the process is essential, especially listening to those who would use the service.

"I think it's important that we're not making decisions for people who use drugs about what that service should look like," she said.

People need to know it's safe to come inside and that police won't be lying in wait to arrest them, she explained – which is among the reasons why Kenora resident Ruth Machimity says Kenora needs a safe consumption site. 

Machimity, a member of the Ojibway Nation of Saugeen in Savant Lake, Ont., started using drugs when she was eight years old. She has lived in Kenora since 2014 and was on the city's streets for years, working in the sex trade.

On March 1, she marked three years of sobriety. She's currently completing a business management program through Confederation College, and has continued sharing her story at events from Winnipeg to Ottawa.

A woman with dark brown hair and a red-orange top stares at the camera, her facial expression neutral.
Jennifer Lawrance is the director of health services for NorWest Community Health Centres, which operates northwestern Ontario's only safe consumption site. She says community engagement is critical for establishing similar sites. (Logan Turner/CBC)

"We're programmed from day one that drugs are bad – people who do drugs are bad – and basically we shun those people. I believe that we need to change that perspective," Machimity said.

A safe consumption site would help people by giving them a safe space to use drugs out of the public eye, she said. 

"If you had a safe injection site, they would know that they're able to go there, they're able to be safe there. They can do what they need to do there without being judged," said Machimity.

HIV cases continue to rise

The drug crisis in Kenora can be connected to the city's surge of HIV cases. There have been five new cases confirmed by the Northwestern Health Unit in 2023 as of Feb. 6.

In 2022, the rate of HIV cases across the Northwestern Health Unit was 12.3 per 100,000 people, which is a 10-year high. In Kenora alone last year, the incidence rate was 37.7 per 100,000. In 2023 so far, Kenora has an incident rate of 54.4 per 100,000.

People working in the sex trade and people who use drugs have been identified as at greater risk of contracting the virus. While there isn't a cure, people can receive treatment that prevents them from spreading HIV to others.

But for people facing a myriad of other problems – lack of housing, mental health challenges and addiction – Lunny said their health often falls through the cracks. 

"It can definitely be more challenging for consistent health behaviours when you have so many things layered on top of that," she said. "That's where a lot of social supports need to come in to support people living with HIV who are also living on the streets or dealing with a lot of other social issues and trauma."

Health-care workers and community agencies are doing important work, with harm reduction strategies informed by people with lived experience, but she said bigger policy changes are needed to really move the mark.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sarah Law

Reporter

Sarah Law is a CBC News reporter based in Thunder Bay, Ont., and has also worked for newspapers and online publications elsewhere in the province. Have a story tip? You can reach her at sarah.law@cbc.ca

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