Heated tent pitched by province at Moss Park overdose prevention site 'useless,' activists say

The new heated military-grade tent pitched by the province to winterize Moss Park's illegal, volunteer-run overdose prevention site on Thursday is "useless," said activists after learning it doesn't meet Ontario's safety requirements.

Ontario's health ministry exploring alternatives to open flames that pose 'risk to client and worker safety'

The military-grade, all-weather tent erected by the province's Emergency Medical Assistance Team at the Moss Park overdose prevention site. (John Grierson/CBC)

The new, heated military-grade tent pitched by the province to winterize Moss Park's illegal, volunteer-run overdose prevention site on Thursday is "useless," said activists after learning it doesn't meet Ontario's safety requirements.   

Ontario's Emergency Medical Assistance Team (EMAT) — a mobile unit typically deployed for community evacuations or mass-casualty events — erected the insulated and heated tent, complete with a generator, as an interim measure to combat plunging temperatures. 

Health Minister Eric Hoskins said Thursday the delivery of the all-weather tent is a controversial step to combat rising overdose-related deaths while he waits for Ottawa to to grant the necessary exemption from federal drug rules that would get an indoor legal supervised-injection site installed at the nearby Fred Victor Centre. 

Hoskins added the federal exemption could be granted within a number of days.   

The province's EMAT is a mobile unit typically deployed for community evacuations or mass-casualty events. (Martin Trainor/CBC News)

'Frustrated with the situation'

But only two days after it was installed, harm reduction worker Zoe Dodd told CBC Toronto they had to revert back to using their unheated tent because the province informed them the open flames used to heat drugs inside the tent presented a fire hazard and an "unacceptable risk."

"I'm angry about it. We're really frustrated with the situation," said Dodd who is a lead organizer with the volunteer Toronto Harm Reduction Alliance that runs the east-end park site. 

"We spoke before this tent came and said, 'People heat up their drugs with lighters, with matches. Is this tent okay to have flames in it? And they said yes, so I don't know what the problem is."

Harm reduction worker Zoe Dodd says the province installed the tent 'without actually working with us to talk about what it is we need.' (Lauren Pelley/CBC)

Dodd explained when people inject drugs they have to use a lighter to heat the solution to kill bacteria and dissolve it and says if they had known before the tent was installed that open flames would be a problem, they would have refused.

"This is an issue where people have brought something in without actually working with us to talk about what it is we need," she said. 

Dodd added a better emergency measure would actually be a trailer and some portable washrooms, noting similar pop-up sites in Ottawa and Calgary already have these services.   

"They need to come up with a solution," she said. "We can't leave people here in this park and neighbourhood to die. We can't abandon people."

'Waste of money'

Volunteer harm reduction workers set up their existing tent every day for their 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. operation in Moss Park. (Lauren Pelley/CBC)

Tara McKenzie, a drug user who frequently takes advantage of Moss Park's services, says she feels safe and finds the pop-up supervised-injection site "very helpful," but says it's a shame the province's tent didn't live up to its promise.

"This tent is a waste of money because you can't let a lighter in it so we can't use in it," she said.

"They brought all this money, put in the tent, and it's just a waste. I use the needle tent, the crack tent — we're safe here, there's no police, they can't bother us." 

'Risk to client and worker safety'

Laura Gallant, spokesperson for the province's Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, said in an email to CBC Toronto the decision was made to "ensure safe operation" of the resources provided by the province.

"EMAT strongly advised that use of open flame in the tent could result in a risk to client and worker safety particularly since oxygen tanks are inside the tents for necessary overdose monitoring  and resuscitation procedures, she wrote.

Gallant added that EMAT did not initially specify to harm reduction workers where people should inject the drugs. 

The winterized tent is a temporary stop-gap while officials wait for the federal government to grant an exemption for a fourth supervised-injection site in downtown Toronto. (Martin Trainor/CBC News)

Coun. Joe Cressy, chair of the Toronto Drug Strategy, echoed that, saying the province's efforts were not in vain. 

"The decision last week by Minister Hoskins to deploy the EMAT team and treat the opioid crisis like the emergency that it is was an extremely important step," he said, noting this is the first time the EMAT team was called in for such a task. 

"The province has demonstrated that they're willing to help ... I think a conversation and creative solutions need to be had and I'm sure the province is more than willing to be part of those conversations." 

Gallant assured such conversations are being had. 

"EMAT is investigating alternative heat methods, including the procurement of industrial grade appliances like hot plates that would be safe for use in a tent environment," she said.   


Amara McLaughlin

Senior producer, CBC News

Amara McLaughlin is the senior producer of social media for CBC News in Toronto.

With files from CBC's Lauren Pelley