Those who sit in the houses of Parliament in Ottawa often talk about the country’s drug crisis and how to stop it. Addressing his colleagues last May, Senator Tony Dean said that “this epidemic is no longer concentrated in well-known and established drug ghettos in major cities. It is affecting every community, both large and small.” Including, he might have said, Ottawa itself.
The crisis is striking the very heart of the nation’s capital. Drug overdoses are a regular occurrence in the city’s historic core. Overdose rates have hit record levels in the past few years. According to figures from Ottawa Public Health, more than 300 people have died by unintentional overdose so far this decade – and the figure will rise once pending numbers from all of last year come in.
On a recent winter day, two men passed a crack pipe back and forth as they huddled in a doorway just down the road from the Senate of Canada Building.
Over on Murray Street, a few blocks from the National Gallery of Canada, drug users lined up outside one of Ottawa’s four supervised drug-use sites. When someone collapsed from an overdose, two workers with red first-aid backpacks rushed out the door to revive him.
You can witness such scenes in any Canadian city. Years into the crisis, about 20 people a day are dying of overdoses. But to see it in Ottawa, home of the Prime Minister, the House of Commons and the Supreme Court, is startling. Just as the crack cocaine epidemic swirled around the White House on the streets of Washington in the 1980s, the overdose wave is lapping at the feet of the country’s decision makers.
People suffering from homelessness and addiction have been a visible presence for years, especially around the ByWard Market and the Rideau Centre, a big downtown mall with luxury shops. The spread of powerful illicit drugs – first crack cocaine, then pain pills, then fentanyl, the synthetic opioid responsible for most overdoses – has made their lives much more dangerous.
In the late 2010s, “all hell broke loose,” says Rob Boyd, head of Ottawa Inner City Health, which aids the chronically homeless. The number of overdoses averaged 36 a year in the early part of that decade. By the end, it had doubled, reaching 65 in 2019. Then it doubled again to 130 in 2021. The first half of 2022 brought another 54 fatalities.
Mr. Boyd says it has become impossible to hold memorial gatherings for all of the victims; there are just too many.
“You’re seeing so much death in this field right now,” Mr. Boyd says. “You hear about one death and then there’s another. It’s non-stop.”
The pandemic made it harder for drug users to visit support services. Mr. Boyd sees more open drug use on the streets now. The number of drug-use “hotspots” has grown.
In November, Ottawa police carried out a bust and seized 2.5 kilograms of fentanyl, enough to make as many as 1.25 million street doses. Bad doses are common. Street fentanyl often contains traces of sedatives, making it harder to revive those who have an overdose.
Ottawa’s opioids problem is most visible on “the block,” a stretch of Murray Street in Lowertown that draws people to visit shelters and use the supervised site. Open 24/7, the site gets about 150 visitors a day. They use their drugs in relative safety, injecting in small, sanitary booths, with nurses on standby.
Outside, though, people often snort, smoke or inject on their own. Staff rush out to help if someone calls a “Code Abby” – the site’s signal for an overdose, named after a frequent, still-living client.
More signs of the problem are evident a few blocks away in the ByWard Market, a big tourist draw full of bakeries, delis, bars and restaurants.
With fewer visitors coming since the pandemic, those with drug, alcohol or mental-health problems stand out. Merchants complain of people sleeping, urinating or using drugs in their doorways.
The head of Ottawa Markets, Zachary Dayler, says one mentally ill young man often crawls around the main market building on his hands and knees or hammers on a metal pole with a stick. “Everyone is scared of him,” says Mr. Dayler, who would like to see more visible help on the streets and more long-term supports for those who are struggling.
John Diener, owner of a local meat market, Saslove’s, says “we are a six- or seven-minute walk from Parliament Hill and this is what we are dealing with.” The market is supposed to be the jewel of the city, he says, the place people go to shop, eat and stroll. But it is also the place “where all the vulnerable people hang out.”
One of those people was Frank Richer, a middle-aged guy with a bushy beard who panhandled outside the meat store and said “God bless you” to everyone. He died in December. Staff at the Murray Street supervised drug-use site say he collapsed from an overdose across the road.
Ottawa’s opioids problem “has become really, really visible,” says Ariel Troster, the city councillor for Somerset ward, which includes Parliament Hill. “I’ve never picked up so many needles as I have in the last year.”
She says she was walking her daughter home from school once when she saw a man collapsed on the street. She called 911 and the police were able to revive him using naloxone, a drug that reverses overdoses. She had to give her young daughter a talk about drug use and how to keep people from dying of it.
Part of the problem, she says, is a lack of decent, reasonably priced housing, putting further stress on those with addictions and mental illnesses. Rents have soared, leaving many of them with nowhere to go but shabby rooming houses, friend’s couches or the street. “So now we have an affordability crisis layered on top of an opioid crisis.”
Another part is a shortage of addiction treatment and other services. The supervised drug-use site in her ward closes at 5 p.m. because there isn’t the money to keep it open 24 hours like the one on Murray Street.
Though most residents have sympathy for those who live on streets, Ms. Troster says, the growing sense of danger they feel is pushing the limits of their compassion.
Those who help people who have overdoses are also reaching their limits, not of their compassion but their endurance. Ottawa paramedics responded to more than 70 overdose calls in January. Spokesman Marc-Antoine Deschamps says they often feel helpless and overwhelmed. Some end up with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Mr. Deschamps himself once responded to a call from a multimillion-dollar house in a nice neighbourhood, a reminder that not all overdoses happen in the edgier parts of town. A young person had died in the night from an overdose. The family’s grief stayed with him.
Some things are changing. A local safe-supply program like the one pioneered in British Columbia supplies approved users with prescription opioids so that they don’t need to take potentially deadly street drugs. Those in the program say they resort to crime and use fentanyl far less often.
Community agencies are building more affordable housing. Right now, construction is under way on a federally funded 48-unit building for Indigenous women.
“I truly believe we’re making headway,” says Tim St. Pierre, a former drug user who works at the Murray Street site. He says he has helped revive hundreds of people in the grip of overdoses, though several have died before his eyes.
In the second quarter of 2022, the number of deaths in Ottawa was down slightly from that of recent years. Twenty-two died over those three months, the lowest quarterly toll since early 2020. But that is still a staggering rate of death for a city of one million. To put it in perspective, Ottawa had 15 homicides and 20 deaths from motor-vehicle collisions in all of 2021.
In the capital, as in the rest of the country, the crisis grinds on.