Around 8 p.m. Friday night, a bright orange tent was set up in Galt Gardens in downtown Lethbridge by a newly-formed group called the Lethbridge Overdose Prevention Society (LOPS).
The tent, which operated as an unofficial overdose prevention site, comes after the province released its COVID Opioid Response Surveillance Report on earlier this week, showing that Lethbridge is on track to record the highest number of opioid-related deaths since 2016.
According to data from the Government of Alberta, 449 people died from apparent unintentional opioid poisoning in the first half of this year, with 22 deaths reported in Lethbridge.
The data shown in the report doesn’t include numbers since Lethbridge’s Supervised Consumption Site, operated by ARCHES, closed on August 31. Funding was pulled from the organization after financial irregularities were discovered in a provincial audit.
Tim Slaney, a former ARCHES employee of two years, is one of the members of the newly-formed volunteer-based group. He says his time doing outreach work on the streets of Lethbridge has highlighted the need for more action.
“I was able to see first-hand just the degree of problems Lethbridge has with opioids, with meth, and with overdose,” Slaney said. “When I saw what was happening with the site getting shut down and took a look at the capacity of the AHS-run replacement, it was very clear to me from the outset that it just wouldn’t be sufficient to deal with the need.”
That replacement was put into place on August 17th, in the form of a mobile overdose prevention site (OPS) located outside the Lethbridge Shelter and Resource Centre, with a much smaller capacity than was previously in place at the ARCHES site.
Kaley Ann Beaudoin, another member of the LOPS, says the tent they’re operating has the capacity to assist two people at a time while they use drugs. It is considered an unsanctioned overdose prevention site, with funds coming from donations, including a GoFundMe page. All volunteers present are trained in harm reduction, and naloxone is available.
“There was no government involvement in setting up this OPS, however, that doesn’t make it an illegal OPS,” she explained.
“What we are doing is guaranteed by our constitutional rights in Canada.”
The group has reached out to Health Canada and the federal government to recognize them as an exemption. Beaudoin adds they chose Galt Gardens due to its status as an “epicentre” of drug use.
“We wanted to be where the people are using drugs,” Beaudoin said. “Ultimately, our goal is to respond to overdoses and keep our neighbours and friends alive, and if this is where we’re seeing people die then this is where we need to be.”
Members of Moms Stop the Harm were also present at the inaugural pop-up to offer their support.
Four people used the pop up site Friday night, and there were no overdoses. The group plans to set up again Saturday night in Galt Gardens. Slaney says some Lethbridge police were present in the park, but did not engage with the group.
In a statement to Global News on Saturday, the Alberta government said the site was illegal.
“Alberta’s government provides a legal, sanctioned overdose prevention site a block away from this location, with adequate capacity for the community,” said an emailed statement from Jason Luan, Alberta’s associate minister of Mental Health and Addiction.
“This illegal site contravenes the Criminal Code of Canada and we expect the City of Lethbridge and the Lethbridge Police Service to enforce the law.”
Staff Sgt. Dwyane Smith with the Lethbridge Police Service said he was unaware of the site until contacted by Global News.
“I did some checking, and it looks like some officers saw the tent last night but were unaware of its purpose,” Smith said in an email Saturday. “Officers will be meeting with the Lethbridge Overdose Prevention Society organizers to determine what is occurring at that site.”
Smith added that any action taken will be determined by the outcome of their meeting.
No tickets issued, group plans on continuing efforts despite police presence
On Monday, Global News was able to confirm the Lethbridge Police Service has not issued any tickets.
They were present at Saturday and Sunday evening’s pop-up tents, while protesters gathered to voice their concerns.
“I am aggravated,” Lethbridge resident Sarah Villebrun said on Saturday. “We have a supervised consumption site set up at our resource centre on 2 Avenue N. It is absolutely unnecessary to set it up half a block away from my home.
“This needs to stop, and it needs to stop immediately.”
Protesters also mentioned potential bylaw infractions by the group.
The City of Lethbridge Parks Bylaw states, in part, that “no person shall: unless allowed by permit: (p) camp in a park (q) erect a tent or other structure in a park.”
“We have been dealing primarily with if any illegal criminal activity is happening and have been in talks with the city over the bylaw part of it,” Cameron Van Roon, acting inspector of field operations with LPS, said during a phone interview Monday.
Dave Henley, senior bylaw officer with the City of Lethbridge, addressed councillors during Monday’s meeting. He said he wasn’t aware of the LOPS operation until Monday morning, and will need to properly assess the situation before going forward.
“We’ll start our process now,” Henley said.
Lethbridge police encourage users to look to the AHS OPS located outside the shelter.