Community members and health advocates staked the lawn of Queen’s Park with 1,265 wooden crosses Monday morning as part of a vigil to urge the Doug Ford government to end the delays in opening additional overdose prevention sites in Ontario.
The province halted the opening of new overdose prevention sites over the summer while it conducted a review of their merits, and said it would announce its decision by the end of September.
But on Friday, the federal government granted Ontario a six-month extension to allow existing overdose prevention sites to operate while the province makes up its mind on the future of the facilities.
“Since the first announcement of the review, and the delay in the opening of overdose prevention sites, an estimated 160 people have died,” Bhutila Karpoche, Ontario NDP MPP for Parkdale-High Park, said.
“This is while the review is going on. So we cannot delay anymore. The government needs to stop dithering and start taking action.”
VIDEO: Doug Ford stopped short of committing to any new safe-injection sites, but said he “will listen” to medical experts on the issue
Ontario’s health minister, Christine Elliott, said in a statement on Friday that she has received data on the sites and held consultations on the issue, and is in the process of finalizing her recommendations.
“We are losing too many people to the opioid crisis. It’s something we take very seriously over here and we want to make sure that we do it right,” Elliott said during question period at the Ontario legislature on Monday.
“We want to make sure that if these overdose prevention sites are continued, that the serve the purpose. One, saving lives, of course. But secondly, getting people into the rehabilitation and treatment that they need, which includes housing, which includes services. There is a lot to be encompassed in this decision. It’s not one thing. It’s many things.”
Elliott did not say when a decision would be announced.
Community Services Minister Lisa MacLeod told reporters following question period that the province needs another month to work on its review.
“She announced a review eight weeks ago and it threw the sector into instability and uncertainty,” Gillian Kolla of the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society said.
“We are in the middle of a crisis. We desperately need to be opening new sites. We desperately need these services to open and right now an evidence-based review is just not necessary.”
Amid debate over the government’s response to the opioid crisis, the NDP questioned recent comments from Health Minister Christine Elliott who said it is not the responsibility of the province to catch pharmacists who illegally sell powerful opioids.
“When confronted with the evidence that there are opioids leaking into the streets from Ontario’s pharmacies, the Minister of Health shrugged off her responsibility to prevent these crimes,” Karpoche said Monday during question period. “How many more lives have to be lost before this government steps up to the plate and starts fighting for the people of Ontario affected by the opioid crisis?”
MPP Vic Fideli, responding on behalf of the premier, sidestepped the question entirely.
“We absolutely disagree with any part of that question,” Fideli said. “This government is absolutely committed to get people struggling with addictions the help that they need.”
A Global News/Toronto investigation published last week revealed that just 15 pharmacists have been caught trafficking thousands of doses of powerful opioids in the last five years as the province has been gripped by a dramatic rise in opioid related fatalities.
None of the pharmacists in the reporting were flagged by Ontario’s Narcotics Monitoring System (NMS), a government monitoring system that could, but doesn’t currently, flag criminal activity.
Richard Elliott, a human rights advocate with the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, has called the Ford government’s response to the opioid crisis “criminally negligent.”
“It’s total lip-service for the health minister to say, ‘We care about the well-being of Ontarians’ including in the context of an ongoing overdose crisis if you’re not willing to fund lifesaving services,’” Elliot said in a recent interview.
Overdose prevention sites are approved by the province following a federal decision to grant the province an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. They are temporary facilities set up to address an immediate need in a community.
During the spring election campaign, Ford said he was opposed to safe injection and overdose prevention sites.
The Registerd Nurses’ Association of Ontario (RNAO) issued a statement calling the delay troubling.
Ontario paused plans to open three new temporary overdose-prevention sites in Thunder Bay, St. Catharines, and Toronto as it conducted the review.
Opioid related deaths in the province have doubled in the last four years, rising from 639 in 2013 to 1,265 in 2017, according to data from Public Health Ontario.
— With files from Andrew Russell