Safe consumption site talk enters mayoral race


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Mitch Bourbonniere has spent decades working with people with addictions. Some of the toughest memories of his job are walking through hotel rooms, streets and public washrooms and seeing people using intravenous drugs in unsafe spaces.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/06/2022 (288 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Mitch Bourbonniere has spent decades working with people with addictions. Some of the toughest memories of his job are walking through hotel rooms, streets and public washrooms and seeing people using intravenous drugs in unsafe spaces.

“It’s heartbreaking to see that in an alleyway as we walk up and down Main Street distributing food. It is heartbreaking to sit with someone on a curb while they are injecting poison, with no alternative, no direct access to help,” he said Monday.

That’s why the Bear Clan volunteer patrol co-founder and community outreach worker is watching the Winnipeg mayoral race closely — to see which candidates advocate for the creation of supervised consumption sites.

“It needs to be someone that understands the science, has empathy and has the courage to follow through with this: that’s who I will vote for,” he told the Free Press.

Supervised consumption sites — regulated spaces where people with addictions can check street drugs, get clean needles, receive emergency care and use in a hygienic setting, with staff trained to catch and prevent overdoses — have become a point of discussion for city leadership in recent years.

Now, it’s reached the 2022 mayoral race.

One registered candidate, business owner Rick Shone, said he’d work to create a safe consumption site program, adding there was research to prove their efficacy and he’d chosen to follow that science.

“These sites increase access to health services for a vulnerable population, connecting these individuals with health services and information on addictions treatment,” he said Monday.

It’s a conversation that needs to be had by every candidate, Main Street Project executive director Jamil Mahmood said, especially as Winnipeggers become more vocal in their support for such sites.

“We’re seeing more and more groups of people that are coming around to it. People who were adamantly opposed to in the past are now open to having conversations or listening and learning,” he said. “We’re seeing it on every level of government, but also throughout social media. And the conversation has changed a lot from where it was even five years ago.”

Winnipeg city council has long pointed to the province as needing to lead the creation of safe consumption sites. The Progressive Conservatives expressed a willingness to explore the idea for the first time earlier this year, when Mental Health and Community Wellness Minister Sarah Guillemard told reporters the province was ready to talk “about everything that’s happening in other jurisdictions.”

Manitoba is the only province west of Atlantic Canada without a single safe consumption site.

The municipal government can bypass the province’s blessing, Mahmood argued.

“There’s lots of opportunities for the city to take the lead. I think there just hasn’t been the willingness from all of council,” he said.

“We know there’s some very supportive councillors, but as a whole, they haven’t really taken up that torch and are kind of just happy to say it’s not a city issue —which is really frustrating for us in the community who are watching folks around us overdose and die almost on a daily basis.”

The Free Press reached out to all 10 registered mayoral candidates for their stance on working at the municipal level to introduce safe consumption sites.

Coun. Scott Gillingham (St. James) said because corresponding services, such as detox beds and addictions supports, are handled by the province, he would only go ahead on safe use sites if the province was bringing them in “as part of a broader health approach” that included other initiatives.

“The city can’t go in it alone… The City of Winnipeg can play a role and be a partner, but it’s really important that the province of Manitoba, who has jurisdiction over the services that individuals need, be, in my view, the lead on this,” he said.

Similarly, Jenny Motkaluk said she’d support safe consumption sites if they were a small part of a larger support plan for people dealing with addictions.

“The larger issues are poverty and homelessness, and those are things that people can experience whether or not they’re victims of addiction… And those are some of the other areas that I think should be larger focus in this campaign,” she said.

Shaun Loney was in favour, and said supervised drug consumption “makes sense from a health, safety and financial perspective.”

Rana Bokhari called the sites a life-saving way to “connect the most vulnerable people in our city with various social services” that would benefit the public at large and reduce the amount of discarded drug equipment on public streets.

Chris Clacio said he was “skeptical” about the city’s ability to bypass the province to successfully set up such sites, and “would need to do more of (his) own research, look at the specific data and evidence, and reach out to organizations that support citizens’ health to fully understand what the specific implications are for those who have lived experiences and need the support in our city.”

Don Woodstock said he would advocate for the province to create more detox beds and give stiffer penalties for drug dealers, but “there has not been enough studies concluded to suggest that we should have (supervised consumption) sites.”

Robert-Falcon Ouellette, Idris Ademuyiwa Adelakun and Desmond Thomas did not respond by deadline.

Malak Abas

Malak Abas

Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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