Ask Ann: An Evening of Social Justice and Community Building

In 2018, we hosted Ann Livingston, co-founder of VANDU and the Overdose Prevention Society, in Ottawa to learn from her experience organizing with people who use drugs. Watch here to learn from Livingston’s experience working towards drug user liberation, which includes a framework for addressing community needs, listening to local knowledge, and traditions for remembering those we have lost.

 

Thank you Ann, for your generosity, love, and tenacity in this fight for social justice.

 

Thanks also to Bobby J for opening the event by acknowledging our presence and work on unceded and unsurrendered Algonquin territory, and Leila for hosting the interview.

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Invest in communities! Divest from police!

On February 25, 2019, community organizations, including the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project, Sanctuary City Network, and Overdose Prevention Ottawa, presented to the Ottawa Police Services Board their concerns with the proposed increase budget. Herein is our presentation:

OPO argued that as a City, we need to divest from the police and start investing in communities, through health and social services, education, food programs, and rent-geared-to-income housing. An increase in the police budget means that we are divesting from our communities and choosing violence and exclusion instead of community support. I urge the police services board to reject the requested increase in the budget and instead support a decrease in funding for Ottawa Police Services.

We have three main concerns regarding the increase in the police budget, which are also areas where funding could be redirected to reduce the need for police. The first is the relationship between Ottawa police and folks accessing harm reduction services, the second is the number of police attending calls for service, and the last is the number of police on the sunshine list.  

At OPO, we repeatedly heard stories of police harassing people accessing harm reduction. These harassing tactics include following people as they walk through the city to access services, breaking drug using equipment that health and social services distribute, mocking people who exert their rights and ask the police why they are being stopped, and purposefully parking cruisers outside of services to deter attendance. These tactics create a barrier for accessing services and people will die as a result of them. In Vancouver, Pivot Legal Society’s Project Inclusion found very similar practices were being used to deter people from accessing harm reduction services. Their research found that policing practices, directly and indirectly, lead to negative health outcomes, opioid-related harms, and safety issues for their study participants. Police actively disrupt harm reduction activities and basic survival activities in ways that undermine the health and safety of residents. In the face of the ongoing overdose emergency, we need to ensure that the City is doing everything possible to prevent death, and this includes putting an end to these common police practices.

Another common tactic by Ottawa police is to have multiple officers attend calls for service. When people see multiple cruisers at a situation, they assume that there is a serious incident underway. However, this tactic has been used for something as mild as public drinking. If I were on the Board and asked to approve an increase in the budget, I would ask to see the data on how many police attend calls for service, and how many police attend each different type of call for service. OPS’ practice of over attendance is a means to inflate the need for police and justify more funding, and it takes away from other community services that can prevent interactions with police. In 2018, the budget for the Ottawa Police Services represented 9.5% of Ottawa’s total expenditures while the Toronto Police Services represented 8.8% of Toronto’s total expenditures. Toronto is the largest city in Canada and the fourth largest in North America. Ottawa may be a growing city, but our population is nowhere near the size of Toronto’s. If we were spending a higher percentage of our expenditures in 2018 on policing, why does the police service need more funding this year?

Related to my questions about police over attendance, is overtime pay and the number of Ottawa police on the sunshine list. The sunshine list every year publishes the names of people paid through public funds that make over $100,000 per year. In 2017, there were 3,363 employees of OPS on the sunshine list. In 2018, that number more than doubled to 7,474 employees of the Ottawa Police being paid over $100,000. Are police officers being paid this rate as their base pay or is this a result of overtime? If it is a result of overtime, it would be important to know how officers are incentivized to do overtime within the police services culture. What is the connection between police over attendance at calls for service and overtime pay?

Police undermine safety for poor and working class, drug using, racialized, and queer and trans residents. It is of the utmost importance for public funds to be spent responsibly and in keeping with evidence on how to create a safe community for everyone. OPS’s budget should be decreased and funds should be allocated towards community initiatives and social services that are identified through community-based processes, have transparent budgets, are accountable to the community, and have shown they can respond and support our well-being and safety.

Increasing the police budget legitimizes the violent tactics used in Ottawa and inflates the need for surveillance, security and regulatory tactics that target certain communities and benefit others. Investing in police means we are divesting from our communities. To the City Councillors on the Board, you have a responsibility as administrators of the public purse to listen to residents and also to listen to evidence. A multitude of evidence demonstrates that police are an inappropriate response to social issues, and increase harm through marginalization and the criminalization inherent in the policing model and criminal justice system.

 We need a city budget that supports community, not criminalization. As the capital city, Ottawa should be a leader in innovative, evidence-based solutions to social issues without falling into the global current that encourages fear of crime, the myth of escalating danger, and mistrust of our neighbours.

Overdose prevention sites are needed in Ontario now!

Ontario is facing the largest and longest public health emergency in recent memory. 1263 people died from an overdose in Ontario last year – more than three people a day. This is an increase of 45% over the 867 people who died unnecessarily in 2016. People who use drugs, community members, and front-line health care workers are struggling to respond to the overdose epidemic without adequate government support.

In the midst of this crisis, the Ontario PC government has paused all funding for new overdose prevention sites and halted the tentative opening of three sites across the province. These sites would provide easy-to-access, life-saving services such as supervised injection, harm reduction supplies, and the overdose-reversing drug Naloxone.

We cannot afford to delay our response to this public health emergency any longer.

Send a message to the Chief Medical Officer of Health to take action for overdose prevention in Ontario now!

 

Ontario PC Government’s Evidence Review of OPS is Deadly – #3PeopleADay

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.

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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.

OPO advocates for a policy of police non-attendance at overdose calls for Emergency Medical Services in Ottawa

People who use drugs often delay or avoid calling Emergency Medical Services (EMS) for medical intervention when an overdose happens due to fear that police will also attend the call. Recent efforts to encourage calls to EMS (for example the Good Samaritan Act) have not been effective. The Vancouver Police Department has had a policy of police non-attendance at non-fatal overdoses since 2006. We call for the creation and implementation of evidence-based guidelines for Ottawa Police Services to increase access to EMS for people experiencing an overdose by limiting attendance of members at overdoses.

Earlier this month, we contacted the Ottawa Police Services Board to present this policy proposal at their upcoming meeting. The Ottawa Police Services Board is supposed to be an independent body that represents community interests. When the Board Executive Director received our proposal, she promptly shared it with an Ottawa Police Services member along with the personal contact information of the OPO organizer who submitted the application. In doing so, the Board is supporting the surveillance of community groups by Ottawa Police Services, not operating independently.

Several days after the Board agenda meeting was posted, the Chair of the Board sent the following email the OPO. The Chief of Police was not cc’d on the email.

 

Overdose Prevention Ottawa Summary Report

In 2017, we opened Ottawa’s first safer consumption space at 307 St. Patrick Street. This report provides a brief overview of our service delivery, timeline of actions, our impact through quotes from our guests and community members and the ongoing harm reduction needs in Ottawa, calling on the need to end prohibition in order to address the overdose emergency.

Read our summary report here.