Safe injection advocate dies of overdose before Toronto approves 3 sites

An advocate for safe injection sites in Toronto did not live to see them become a reality, dying of a drug overdose weeks before the city's board of health voted unanimously in favour of them.

Board of health votes unanimously in favour of proposed supervised safe injection sites

Brooklyn McNeil died of an overdose on June 22. She had fought for safe injection sites in the city. (Facebook)

Two weeks ago, Brooklyn McNeil, 22, who had for years advocated for safe injection sites, was found dead in an alley from a drug overdose. 

Toronto's board of health voted unanimously today to approve three recommended sites. 

But not before McNeil fulfilled her purpose, her mother, Thia Massaro, told CBC Radio's As it Happens.

"Sometimes I think, 'Was this your message? That you had to really show this happens?' I battle with it," Massaro said.

"I honestly don't think she was meant to be here long. She had to live what she had to teach, and in order to help people she had to feel it."

Toronto city council still needs to ratify the board's recommendation with its own vote.

Safe injection is already legal in Canada as long as the federal government grants approval, according to Bill C-2. Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott told the CBC in March that supervised injection sites are among a number of strategies the government has put forward to cope with drug abuse and overdose deaths.

"From a public health point of view it makes a tremendous amount of sense," she said. "Sites like Insite in Vancouver and others like them have the possibility to save countless lives."

Federal exemption required

But to earn Ottawa's sanction, the proposed sites must have the endorsement of the city's chief of police and support from local businesses and the municipality.

Council's vote next week will determine whether that last condition is met.

Assuming it votes in favour of the safe injection clinics, Toronto will then apply to the federal government for the necessary exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Ottawa has already approved two such clinics in the Vancouver area: InSite and the Dr. Peter Centre, which had already been operating for more than 10 years.

McNeil died on June 22 and would have turned 23 on Tuesday.

She moved from Thunder Bay, Ont., to Toronto several years ago to study animation at Humber College, but her addiction led her to set aside her formal education, her obituary says. She also struggled with mental health issues and homelessness.

John MacDonaldMcNeil's caseworker, was asked to speak at the board meeting Monday by her father.

"From her death he would like to see something positive," MacDonald said. "If there was a safe injection site I think she would still be alive. If there was a safe injection site, people wouldn't be using in an alleyway."

Now up to city council

The board of health recommended three sites, which the city plans to ask the province to fund, including the Toronto Public Health office near Dundas and Victoria streets, the South Riverdale Community Health Clinic and the Queen West-Central Toronto Community Health Centre.

On Monday, Ward 20 Coun. Joe Cressy applauded the three communities for supporting the sites. 

"In the Queen West neighbourhood, I have experienced a community that's come forward and said, 'Yes, in my backyard.'"

The board of health report also suggests establishing community safety advisory committees and coming up with a system for active monitoring and evaluation.

In the past 10 years, overdose deaths in the city have gone up by more than 70 per cent, according to a 2015 report by the city. The safe injection sites would provide hygienic spaces for users to inject drugs under a nurse's supervision. 

Both Mayor John Tory and Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders support the creation of the sites, but critics say that they encourage drug use.

For those who suggest the sites could make neighbourhoods more dangerous, MacDonald had a blunt response.

"If I was in the neighbourhood, I'd be concerned about people using in the alleyway," he said. "That's where Brooklyn died."

Drug user helped others get clean

Friends said McNeil was turning her life around as a mentor for youth and an advocate for people with drug addictions. McNeil spoke of those issues when she addressed the Toronto health board in March, urging it to create spaces similar to Vancouver's InSite clinic.

McNeil's friend Akia Munga was injecting methamphetamine until seven months ago, but said she helped him get clean.

McNeil had moved to Toronto to study animation, but she struggled with addiction, mental health and homelessness. She had recently worked as a mentor for youth and those addicted to drugs. (Facebook)

"Just because you were hurt by the world doesn't mean you have to continue to allow the world to hurt you," he said, fighting back tears. "[McNeil] taught me to not do that."

At the March board of health meeting, mumsDU founder and facilitator Donna May had the chance to meet McNeil, who was the last to speak to the group.

On Monday, May was overcome by emotion, recalling her own daughter, who lost her life to a flesh-eating disease contracted as a result of her addiction.

"Since her passing, all I've done is advocate for harm-reduction measures that will save the lives of other children," May said of her daughter. "It's already too late for me, but it's not too late for them."

In March, mumsDU founder and facilitator Donna May had the chance to meet McNeil. May lost her own daughter, who battled addiction, to flesh-eating disease. (CBC)

Friends and family are asking for donations in McNeil's name to an organization called Eva's, which supports homeless youth in Toronto.

Massaro believes safe injection sites were her daughter's purpose, one that she fulfilled before she died.

"That was her fight," Massaro said of the sites. "She'd feel she had a great part in this, and I think she'd be overwhelmingly happy."

A celebration of McNeil's life will be held in Thunder Bay on July 25.