Overdose Prevention Ottawa strongly condemns the Ontario PC Government’s decision to “pause” the opening of three overdose prevention sites while it reviews evidence on these services. The impact of this decision is being felt across the province, as agencies and communities grapple with the largest and longest public health emergency this province has faced in two decades. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, there were 3,987 “apparent opioid-related deaths” in 2017, 1263 of these people died in Ontario. That means that more than three people are dying from overdose every day in this province. These numbers indicate a dramatic and heartbreaking increase in preventable deaths from an overdose compared to any year previous. Premier Ford, Minister Elliott, and the rest of the Conservative Caucus, you have blood on your hands.
The provincial government, who is responsible for providing accessible health care to all Ontarians has tried to justify the suspension by voicing their support for treatment and indicating they are reviewing evidence on how overdose prevention sites save lives.
Justifying the limitation of harm-reduction through support for treatment is an oxymoron. The PC Government has done nothing to promote or fund the expansion of treatment services, nor does this approach represent an understanding of the health and social services system. Harm-reduction and treatment programs work in tandem, not in opposition. To present them as competing approaches is manipulative, ignorant, and divisive as it forces programs with already small budgets to fight for small scraps of money. Furthermore, it demonstrates a paternalistic assumption that people who use drugs need to be saved. Access to a broad spectrum of responses during this crisis is a matter of political will, not budget lines. If the Ford administration is so committed to the provision of treatment services, they must ensure people are alive to access care. Harm-reduction services are essential because people survive a system of prohibition that is killing them. Additionally, harm-reduction is part of the continuum of care for people who are interested in seeking treatment.
The review and pause ordered by Minister Elliott is a fatal waste of time given the current context of the overdose crisis. The empirical basis of data in support of harm reduction services that provide a space for people to use has been well-established. This evidence has displayed a reduction in mortality rates, increased access to healthcare, reduction in healthcare costs, no correlation to crime or initiation of drug use, and safer consumption practices. To learn about the overdose prevention site we operated in Ottawa last year, read our summary report, in which we demonstrate the need for better access to harm reduction services.
The stance of the Ontario government represents a troubling shift that many of us have seen before: a message of punishment instead of support to people who use drugs and frontline workers who have been carrying the brunt of this crisis. Once again, we will be left alone with few resources to respond to this crisis.
This attack on harm reduction by the PC Government is part of a series of attacks on our poor, racialized, trans, and queer communities. Including the cancellation of the basic income pilot project, the attack on social assistance, the implementation of an outdated sex education curriculum, the exclusion of Indigenous content into the curriculum, and the suspension of environmental programs.
Supervised consumption services, including overdose prevention sites, are essential life-saving healthcare services. However, so long as the War on Drugs continues, these services are a drop in the bucket. The drug supply is tainted as a result of prohibition and because people cannot get the drugs they need from a reliable and safe source. Due to fear of criminalization, people rarely call 9-1-1 when they witness an overdose and fear seeking medical support because of the judgment and stigma they face from a system that tells them they are criminals. The War on Drugs makes people outsiders in the very communities they live in.
With these developments, this new administration is making it clear that the century-long War on People Who Use Drugs will be further entrenched over the next four years, and those we love and work with will be further punished, made outlaws, and outsiders by this system. Instead of carrying out proven pathways for dignity and life, Doug and his crew are turning back to a dark age of indifference and ignorance.
Overdose Prevention Ottawa applauds the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society for once again stepping up in the midst of this crisis to save lives by opening the Parkdale OPS, while every level of government sits idly by with health and social service agencies.
We call on every Ontarian to express their collective outrage at the PC Government’s violent decisions. This is not a time for our supporters in public health, health, and social services agencies, the federal government, or municipalities to stay quiet. We must collectively call out these deadly politics. We call on you to work together with people who use drugs and community groups doing this important work to ensure a basic level of safety when faced by a provincial government that refuses to recognize our right to lifesaving healthcare services.