More than 1,000 wooden crosses representing lives lost to drug overdoses were placed outside Ontario’s legislature on Monday as advocates called on the province to maintain and expand overdose prevention sites currently under review, but the government said it needed more time to decide on the fate of the facilities.
The Progressive Conservatives paused the planned openings of several sites the summer as they reviewed the future of the facilities, a move that has drawn criticism from harm prevention workers and many in the medical community.
Early Monday, advocates from the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society pushed 1,265 crosses into the lawn outside the legislature to represent those who died as a result of overdoses last year, and held a vigil to mark the lives lost.
“We want to remind the government that that’s what we’re talking about here, we’re talking about people’s lives and that’s what’s in their hands,” said Sarah Ovens, one of the event’s organizers. “That’s what depends on the results of this review.”
Ovens urged the province to keep funding currently operating overdose prevention sites, allow new sites that have requested funding to open, and provide more funding for mental health and addiction services.
“Our sites are one of the biggest places where people access referrals to treatment,” she said.
The crosses placed by Ovens and others were removed from the legislature’s lawns by mid-Monday morning, shortly before Community Services Minister Lisa MacLeod said the province needed another month to work on its review of the sites.
The government had previously said it would announce a decision by the end of September but MacLeod said the province had to do its due diligence on the matter.
“This crisis has been on-going for a number of years. It started in 2012 and it’s going to take some time to solve it,” she told reporters. “These are people’s lives and we are very cognizant of the struggles that everyday Ontarians face.”
Overdose prevention sites – temporary facilities meant to address an immediate need – are approved by the province following a federal decision to grant an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Safe injection sites, meanwhile, are more permanent locations approved by the federal government after a more extensive application process.
Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott has said she has received data on the overdose prevention sites, held consultations on the issue and is in the process of finalizing her recommendations.
On Friday, Elliott asked Ottawa to extend an exemption that would allow current overdose prevention sites to continue operating while the province decides on the facilities.
Federal Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor said Monday she immediately granted Ontario’s request.
“I ... am pleased that the Ontario Government is considering the evidence we have shared,” she said in a statement. “I’m confident they will reach the same conclusion that I have; these sites save lives.”
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath called Monday’s actions outside the legislature a “stark” demonstration and chided the government for its slow movement on the file.
“(It) speaks to the desperate feeling people have around this government dragging its feet when it comes to the approval of the sites,” she said. “The fact is that this government said they would have a decision by the end of September.”
More than 100 health groups issued an open letter to the province in late August, saying the government’s review of overdose prevention sites was “unnecessary” and a moratorium on opening such facilities was troubling.