There was a small but very moving rally on Friday morning outside the office of Alberta’s new health minister. The gathering was a desperate attempt to get the provincial government to reconsider its funding freeze for all new supervised consumption sites.
Those on the front lines of health care, along with surviving family members and those in recovery from addiction, gathered to send a message.
Kym Porter lost her 31-year-old son Neil to a fentanyl overdose. She had a clear message for the United Conservative Party.
“What is happening in this province reeks of death and I cannot sit and watch such an atrocity unfold in front of my eyes,” Porter said through tears.
Family physician Dr. Bonnie Larson said supervised consumption sites are a critical part of health care.
“Just like emergency departments, they are places to go when you’re at high risk of illness or death and you will not die there,” Larson said.
“Each time you access this service, you will have entered a system that can help in many ways after you don’t die.”
On Monday, Premier Jason Kenney halted funding for supervised consumption sites, saying he needs to conduct a review. Friday, Kenney wasn’t backing down on his decision.
“We had explicit commitment to engage in a consultation and evidence-based review of the social and economic impacts of drug sites before we decide to proceed with any others,” he said.
Jessica Holtsbaum’s brother Nathan died from an overdose. She said a safe consumption site could have saved his life.
She wants the government to restore funding.
“If they insist on going ahead with this review, it must be transparent and it must be fast because every day this is delayed people are going to die and this is going to be on the UCP government’s hands,” Holtsbaum said.
Those with lived experience with addiction like Jessica McEachern say they wanted to speak for those who can’t.
“Harm reduction saved my life. I overdosed twice and I’m lucky to be alive,” McEachern said.
Minister of Health Tyler Shandro wasn’t aware of the protest and did come to his office to meet briefly with the group. Shandro told waiting reporters outside that he appreciated hearing from them but offered little else, except to say he was up all night in the legislature.
“Can I get back to you? I’d love to be able to make sure I’ve got a thoughtful reply, but I need to rush to my next meeting. I jumped put on clothes after two double shifts with filibuster,” Shandro said before walking away.
Hours later, Global News reached out to his office for a statement. Shandro said he was touched by the accounts he heard.
“I want to be clear: our government supports a full continuum of care for addicts, including harm reduction, treatment and recovery, and prevention to keep people from becoming addicted in the first place,” Shandro said.
“We will review the current proposals for new sites before we provide any further funding for them.”
The family said they had wanted some assurances but left dissatisfied and disappointed.
“What I was hoping to hear?” Porter asked. “‘Wow really? I wasn’t aware of the depths of this and I hear you and I am going to meet with Mr. Kenney and I’m going to tell him we need to get these sites back up and running.'”