Protesters call on Ford government to open overdose prevention sites
'No one can access these services when people are dead,' demonstrators say
Dozens of people protested Wednesday afternoon outside a downtown Toronto conference on the opioid crisis, upset with the Ontario government's decision to hold off on opening three overdose prevention sites.
"What happens when there are bodies piling up on the streets because there aren't safe injection sites?" asked Akia Munga, a drug user and harm reduction worker.
"No one can access these services when people are dead."
Munga broke down in tears while speaking at the protest, which was attended by people, including doctors and nurses, who help people addicted to opioids.
Some held a large banner reading "We Grieve Thousands."
Federal government data shows 1,125 people in Ontario in 2017 died of suspected opioid overdoses — hundreds more than the previous year.
The three planned overdose prevention sites now on hold, in Thunder Bay, St. Catharines and Toronto's Parkdale neighbourhood, had already been approved under the Liberals, but Ontario's new Progressive Conservative government has said it's conducting an "evidence-based review" and is also not accepting applications for other similar sites.
The demonstrators also sent an open letter to Premier Doug Ford and Health Minister Christine Elliott including the names of 862 health professionals who support opening the three sites.
The noon-hour protest was held on the sidewalk outside a building on King Street East where a federal symposium on opioids was taking place. Neither Ford nor Elliott attended the symposium, though according to Elliott's press secretary, her parliamentary assistant was there.
Provincial recommendation on overdose prevention sites expected in fall
Ontario's health ministry says a recommendation from its review on how to deal with overdoses should be coming this fall.
Federal Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor left the symposium to talk with the protesters and said she'd also like to speak with her Ontario counterpart.
"Overdose prevention sites [save] lives," Petitpas Taylor said. "We have the data and we are prepared as a department to make sure that the Ford government has access to that information."
But the demonstrators want the federal government to go further.
"You have the power to call a health emergency," Zoe Dodd, a harm reduction worker, told Petitpas Taylor.
"We need you to do something."
The minister responded by saying she is taking the issue seriously and wants to work with front-line workers and other levels of government on a solution.
Earlier in the day, Toronto Mayor John Tory agreed with the federal government that the evidence is already there, indicating overdose prevention sites save lives.
"I was convinced of that a long time ago," Tory told reporters gathered at a campaign event for his re-election.
"I just hope that those who are reviewing these things will expedite those reviews and will come to the conclusion which I think is virtually inescapable that they're saving lives."