Toronto's illegal, activist-run overdose-prevention site in the city's Moss Park now has the use of an insulated, heated, military-style medical tent, complete with a generator – all courtesy of the provincial government.
The khaki tent, which measures about three by eight metres, was erected Thursday by Ontario's Emergency Medical Assistance Team, a unit usually deployed for community evacuations or "mass-casualty events."
Queen's Park has declined calls from harm-reduction activists to declare the increasing opioid-overdose crisis – which claimed 865 lives in the province last year – an official health emergency.
But this latest move, ordered late Wednesday by Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins, suggests its response to the crisis is entering a new phase.
"It's really because the weather is getting colder, conditions are getting tougher, we felt it was important to provide this level of support," Dr. Hoskins said on Thursday. "I wanted to assert my full confidence in the Moss Park activities and the work they are doing."
The province was already providing the illegal site with the anti-overdose drug naloxone, as well as kits to test for whether street drugs are contaminated with the deadly opioid fentanyl.
But deploying government resources this way appeared to mark a new chapter in Ontario's evolving overdose crisis.
Queen's Park is now providing a semi-permanent structure for a life-saving operation that is staffed by activist volunteers and remains in violation of federal drug laws. The tent and its generator will be watched over by provincially funded security guards.
Zoe Dodd, a lead organizer with the volunteer Toronto Harm Reduction Alliance that has been running the site in this gritty east-end park since August, says the new tent looks like a set from the 1970s Korean War TV comedy M*A*S*H.
However, she says a trailer, and some portable washrooms, would actually be a better solution as the cold approaches – adding that trailers, not tents, have already been used for pop-up injection sites in Calgary and Ottawa.
"I think that we are really thankful for something right now, because we're in an immediate need to be warm," Ms. Dodd said. "I don't think it is a long-term interim solution. Most places, when they were building [supervised-injection sites] they put trailers in."
The activists set up their existing tents Thursday for their 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. operation in Moss Park and did not plan to use the new tent until later or perhaps Friday, when they would have a chance to move their equipment inside.
City officials welcomed the move.
Joe Mihevc, the city councillor who chairs Toronto's Board of Health, said the province's step was another sign of society's shifting approach to drugs: "When we look back at this, we are going to say … we really did transition from a policing, punitive approach to drugs to a public-health approach to drugs. That's really the change that's happening."
The new tent is meant to be a temporary solution to help as temperatures drop, and as officials scramble to get an indoor legal supervised-injection site approved by Ottawa and installed at the nearby Fred Victor Centre for the homeless across Queen Street East from Moss Park.
Activists say a deal had originally been reached to see the centre, an independent charitable agency, play host to their illegal site until the application for a legal one was approved. But the arrangement fell apart in recent days, activists and city officials say.
Those who run the illegal site also warn that complying with the federal government's rules to get an exemption will mean an end to their ability to have friends, or other drug users, provide "assisted injection" for users who cannot inject themselves.
Still, the plan to open a legal site as soon as possible at Fred Victor appears to be going ahead.
Dr. Hoskins and Mayor John Tory sent a letter this week asking the federal Health Minister, Ginette Petitpas Taylor, to allow the proposed indoor legal site to open immediately.
Dr. Hoskins says he has already authorized a $500,000 budget for Fred Victor's proposed legal site, and sent the province's formal approval for the site to Ottawa, even though actual application has not yet been sent.
Officials say it will be submitted soon.
Both Health Canada and city officials have both said an approval could conceivably be issued in as few as two to three weeks. Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Ms. Petitpas Taylor would only say she would have her staff review it as quickly as possible.
Ms. Dodd and her fellow harm-reduction activists at Queen's Park insist that Health Canada could still take weeks to approve the site, and that construction and hiring and other bureaucratic hangups mean it could be months before Fred Victor opens its doors. She says those running the Moss Park illegal site are determined to stay until then.
Their effort, fuelled with a crowdfunded $30,000, is also receiving provincial funding indirectly, via an east-end health clinic.
Activists say B.C. is allowing dozens of similar pop-up sites, after declaring a health emergency.
City Councillor Joe Cressy, chairman of the city's drug-strategy implementation panel, has said that federal laws must change to allow the city to openly support pop-ups like the one in Moss Park, and to allow similar sites to open without going through an "onerous" application process.