Skip to content

HACKETT: Compassion on display at OPS hearing


Watching Thursday’s public hearing about the future of the Overdose Prevention Site, I was impressed by the courage and compassion displayed by so many individuals in our community.

From those with lived experience at the OPS in Red Deer, those who have lost loved ones to drug overdoses and people in health care who directly work with those who will be impacted by the decision to transition away from the OPS — they all showed up and had their voices heard.

Two key figures in this discussion were absent, and I hope they were listening. Red Deer-South MLA Jason Stephan has voiced support for the motion and the transition of the OPS out of Red Deer. Health Minister and Red Deer-North MLA Adrianna LaGrange did not present at the meeting. Those two figures must be advocates for Red Deer’s most vulnerable if any solutions to our current crisis are to be found.

Even so, it was a heavy day in council chambers. Lots of questions, lots of answers.

Safe Harbour executive director Kath Hoffman was the last to speak and she delivered this line that stuck with me.

“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety — it is connection.”

Much earlier in the marathon eight-hour meeting, Dr. Thara Kumar, an emergency doctor in Red Deer, delivered an eloquent and blunt message about the transition. Simply put, it would lead to more deaths on our streets.

Dr. Kumar outlined the inadequate resources Red Deer’s current Overdose Prevention Site has to provide services beyond clean needles and a safe space for drug consumption for those who are battling an addiction.

She said we would not consider the removal of services for those with diabetes or diseases, yet addicts face the constant stigma of being a burden on their community while they battle their demons.

She outlined that an OPS was never the goal in Red Deer, but a full-on supervised consumption site, complete with mental health and addictions treatment care workers and therapies, as well job support services and supportive spaces that humanize addicts’ experience, rather than confine them to a small trailer.

She was more eloquent than I could ever be about the vital service the OPS is providing at this point and how much worse the situation would be if we didn’t have the OPS.

The fact of the matter is that we have an opioid epidemic in our country that has worsened significantly since the COVID-19 pandemic started in 2020.

While the OPS does all it can with limited resources (just four rooms to serve the entirety of Central Alberta), it is clear that the problem spills out onto the streets with needles disposed of in the streets and addicts suffering throughout Red Deer’s downtown.

Even those who own businesses and councillors supporting the motion suggested Thursday that more needs to be done to help addicts, who are mothers and fathers and sons and daughters, just like the rest of us. They are human, they matter.

Not one person in favour of the motion could answer the question about what would happen if the OPS was transitioned out of the community.

There’s no magic wand or one-size-fits-all solution that is going to solve this epidemic, and providing fewer services to help addicts in crisis is clearly not the answer.

Nobody wants to see people dying in our streets and as Dr. Kumar pointed out, there has never been a death in an OPS facility in Canada.

I have an unending amount of empathy for the business owners who this crisis has adversely impacted. Crime and vagrancy have hurt those businesses and their operations. Having drug users allegedly use in front of their businesses and in their parking lots is an unfortunate consequence of the crisis that we are facing. It’s a devastating consequence, one that needs a solution sooner rather than later.

It’s hard for me to envision a world where closing the OPS and not providing additional services in the interim will be a direct solution to the problems that business owners are facing. Those individuals won’t magically just get cleaned up.

If they are part of the homeless community, they don’t have the means to relocate outside of our city if the OPS were to transition.

As difficult as it is to imagine, the problem would be exacerbated far beyond the scope of what it is now.

A few of the business owners spoke of a better time downtown, a time before the OPS site was opened. In an ideal world, returning to a bustling, thriving downtown would make Red Deer a more desirable place than it is now.

But a stigma doesn’t change overnight. If the OPS closed tomorrow, Red Deer’s downtown won’t suddenly open for business and thrive because of shuttering services for those who desperately need them.

Red Deer’s downtown faces a perception problem that is far larger than closing a service that actually does good in our community and keeps potential overdose situations out of our emergency rooms, which are already facing a crisis before compounding those issues.

And even Coun. Vesna Higham, who proposed the original motion to transition away from the site, acknowledged that the goal is not to close the OPS next week or this year but to transition to a more effective model in the coming years.

There was also a lot of discussion about what the original motion included in terms of closure of the OPS vs. “a transition away from the OPS.” To be clear, that transition process doesn’t include a short-term solution to what those users of the facilities would do in the interim. And if the “transition” starts at the end of 2024, what is the first step of a transition? Does it mean fewer services? Does it mean reduced hours or temporary closures?

Many referenced Lethbridge’s situation, in which the Supervised Consumption Site was essentially closed overnight. In this case, nobody seems to suggest that be the solution here, but many advocates worry that would be the government’s solution if the city asked for them to transition away from the OPS.

We all share in these problems now and finding a solution which seems to be more services, not less, as almost everyone who spoke at Thursday’s meeting attested to, is the real answer.

The drugs won’t go away. The addicts won’t suddenly disappear. They’ll suffer in silence — alone, afraid and unable to get help.

Byron Hackett is the Managing Editor of the Red Deer Advocate and a Regional Editor for Black Press Media.

Byron Hackett

About the Author: Byron Hackett

Byron has been the sports reporter at the advocate since December of 2016. He likes to spend his time in cold hockey arenas accompanied by luke warm, watered down coffee.
Read more