Vancouver's council has approved a plan to spend millions on the city's response to the escalating drug-overdose crisis, despite drawing sharp criticisms from different directions.
The proposal to use a small property-tax increase to fund community policing, a medic van and training for municipal staff comes as the city struggles to cope with a sudden increase in fatal overdoses, mostly in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood. The city had more than 200 people die in 2016 in what was a record year across British Columbia. The death toll from fentanyl and other opioids continues to grow across the country.
The mayor's main opposition on council has objected to the entire response, which is expected to cost about $3.5-million, while others have criticized specific programs the money will fund.
For example, some Downtown Eastside residents showed up at the council meeting Wednesday to object to the plan to put $200,000 into a community-policing centre as part of the response, saying money should go into prevention, not enforcement.
"That's just for surveillance," said Karen Ward, who works with the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users. "We've seen how the existing community patrols already push people to the side."
The city's three centre-right councillors opposed the whole plan, which also includes $1.9-million for the medic van and $10,000 to train city and park staff in dealing with drug overdoses and administering naloxone, a medication that can reverse overdoses. What to do with the remaining money will be decided later.
"It looks like a blank cheque to me," said NPA Councillor Melissa De Genova, saying that paramedics had never been consulted on where the money could be most effective and that even Downtown Eastside organizations were opposed to parts of the response plan. NPA Councillor George Affleck said the money will not solve the overwhelming problem of addiction that has been exacerbated by illegal drugs laced with the more powerful and deadly fentanyl.
In response, councillors from the dominant Vision Vancouver party repeated their earlier criticism of the provincial and federal governments for not doing more, and also took swings at the NPA councillors for wanting to delay the response.
"It's a call to do nothing," said Vision Councillor Kerry Jang, responding to his NPA colleagues' suggestion for more consultation. "We'll spend time talking, talking, talking and people will die, die, die, die."
Mayor Gregor Robertson added that "we cannot wait and delay action at this stage of the game."
"I'm really concerned at how slow the province has been to act. Hundreds and hundreds of people have died because governments are moving too slowly," the mayor said.
The provincial government declared a public-health emergency last year and it has been rolling out announcements about new measures, such as treatment beds, a special mobile medical unit in the Downtown Eastside and support for new supervised-consumption sites in Vancouver, Surrey and Victoria.
Ottawa has set up a national task force.
The Vision councillors and Green Party council member Adriane Carr did add motions to direct spending of the remaining $1.4-million the city has available, as well as approving the first $2.1-million for initial actions.
They agreed that money should go to front-line peer workers and "people with lived experience."
Ms. Carr also argued passionately that some of the future spending should go to enhanced mental-health support for some of the city's first responders, who have been dealing with hundreds of overdoses a month recently. The Vision councillors also supported that.
The mayor and others also urged people in the Downtown Eastside to work with the new Strathcona community-policing centre, saying that it will be a largely volunteer-run organization whose mandate is to support everyone in the neighbourhood.
"I really hope there is an engagement by all the groups with that centre," Ms. Carr said.