EDITOR’S NOTE: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Martin Heavy Head as the chair of the Blood Tribe Department of Health. He is a harm-reduction advocate. Global News regrets the error.
A group gathered in Lethbridge on Thursday afternoon to show support for the Lethbridge Overdose Prevention Society and harm-reduction services in southern Alberta.
The collection of doctors, lawyers and community leaders have penned an open letter to the provincial government, demanding more substantial services in the wake of the closure of ARCHES supervised consumption site.
“They understand, from a medical perspective, the seriousness of the condition,” lawyer Ingrid Hess said Thursday. “They understand the challenges that their patients have in terms of accessing treatment, succeeding in treatment.”
The mobile overdose prevention unit put in place by Alberta Health has seen low numbers of clients since its opening in August.
Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addiction Jason Luan penned an open letter in September, emphasizing the government’s announcement of $10 million to build 125 new beds in the region.
The letter also condemned the Lethbridge Overdose Prevention Society for its actions:
“If this group truly wanted to protect and support our fellow citizens who are not well, they would be directing them to legal health-care services, rather than creating chaos, confusion and using them as a political tool. Shameful.”
Hess says the minister’s accusations are shameful and miss the point of their advocacy entirely.
”Those beds aren’t available right now, so what do we do in the interim? Just watch people die from this illness? It’s unacceptable,” Hess said.
“People are dying. There’s a reason people are dying, and everything Mr. Luan said is just political rhetoric, in my view.”
Harm-reduction advocate Martin Heavy Head says it’s clear to many of the professionals that have signed the open letter that the negativity towards addiction support in the community is tied to negative attitudes towards Indigenous people.
“The perception is that it’s just Indigenous people but that’s just not true,” Heavy Head said. “There are plenty of non-Indigenous drug users in this community.”
He says the key focus of community leaders should be on providing food, housing and mental health support alongside harm-reduction services for any progress to be made in combating the opioid crisis.
Event speakers say they will continue their advocacy until proper harm-reduction services are provided to the region.