duncan wellness centre protest
Protesters walk by 5878 York Rd., the proposed location of a wellness and recovery centre. (Photo by Jacqueline Ronson)

Planned wellness centre meets resistance

Here's what we know about the facility and the opposition to it.
September 24, 2020

Last Saturday, about 300 people marched from Cowichan Secondary School to Quamichan School in protest of Island Health’s plan to locate a wellness and recovery centre at 5878 York Rd. in North Cowichan. 

The wellness centre is expected to host the region’s overdose prevention site (OPS), currently located at 221 Trunk Rd. in Duncan. That’s where people who use drugs can use them under supervision, access clean supplies and get help if they overdose. But that service will take up just a quarter of the centre, Island Health says. In addition, there will be primary medical care, outreach, case management and treatment on site. 

Staff will include nurses, social workers, a psychiatrist, counsellors, peer support staff, rehabilitation workers and recovery workers. They will work together to coordinate support for people with significant mental health and substance use challenges. Island Health has also promised neighbourhood security patrols and needle pick-up. 

At the protest and on Facebook, The Discourse asked for your questions about the wellness centre. Here’s what we heard. Your questions will guide our ongoing investigation.

The centre represents a significant expansion in services for people with substance use disorders. It is also something that local leadership has united to call for. A press release from earlier this year asked the province for “urgent funding and support for escalating addictions and housing challenges.” 

The proposed site is already a hub for people who struggle with substance use and hang out on the streets. It is kitty-corner to the Warmland House shelter, and across the street from the Phoenix Wellness Clinic, which treats opioid use disorder. 

Right services, wrong location?

Protest organizers say they do not oppose these services, only the proposed location. 

“It’s really about that this location is not appropriate for these kinds of services,” said organizer Florie Varga, in an interview prior to the event.

Cowichan Secondary School, Quamichan School, Alexander Elementary School and Duncan Christian School are all within a few hundred metres of the site.

According to signs and speeches at the event, and interviews with attendees, children are already exposed to assaults, open drug use, exposed genitalia, human waste and discarded needles as they travel through the neighbourhood. 

“The location that was ultimately chosen is inappropriate and will surely have negative impacts on the surrounding businesses and residents,” writes North Cowichan Mayor Al Siebring in a letter to Island Health.

That statement is contested, however, including by at least one member of North Cowichan council. 

In an interview with My Cowichan Valley Now, Dr. Shannon Waters, medical health officer with Island Health, says there’s evidence services like these decrease crime and can help stabilize neighbourhoods. 

What can we learn from the previous sites?

A 2018 Island Health report found a majority of neighbours of Duncan’s first overdose prevention site, on Canada Ave., said they saw an increase in drug-related litter, open drug use, drug related crime and public nuisance. 

By contrast, service providers, police and emergency responders did not notice an uptick in drug-related litter and open drug use. Crime statistics did not show an uptick in crime within a 100-metre radius. 

The operation on Canada Ave. was short lived, due to an expired lease and unexpected high demand for the service, according to reporting by the Cowichan Valley Citizen

At the current site on Trunk Rd., neighbours advocated for a year to get Island Health to implement supports to deal with the impacts of the OPS on the neighbourhood, said Duncan mayor Michelle Staples in an interview with The Discourse last week. 

In late 2019, Island Health agreed to help fund security patrols of the site, in collaboration with the City of Duncan and the highway corridor Safer Community Plan. Those patrols already cover the area near the proposed wellness centre, and are expected to continue.

Paige MacWilliam, Duncan’s director of corporate services, is part of the Safer Community Plan’s Safer Working Group. She says that, since security was put in place, complaints from neighbours have been negligible. In July, at the most recent check-in with OPS managers, Island Health, RCMP and bylaw officers, neither bylaw staff nor police reported any calls for service related to the site. 

If not here, where?

Island Health says, after a year-long search, 5878 York Rd. was the only possible location found for the wellness centre. It has signed a lease and has no intention to delay, either for consultations or to look for alternative locations. 

“Extensive consultation involving multiple potential site options would have been optimal; however, in this case, there was only one site available,” writes Island Health vice president James Hanson in a letter to the mayor of North Cowichan.

The centre is expected to open in June 2021, after renovations at the site. Previously, Island Health hoped to open it by fall, 2020. 

This is all in the midst of an overdose crisis, exacerbated by a pandemic, that has claimed nearly five times as many lives in B.C. as COVID-19 this year. 

Benjamin Perrin, a law professor at the University of British Columbia and formerly Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s top criminal justice adviser, used to oppose overdose prevention sites. But as he saw rising deaths, he felt a duty to investigate, he writes in the Calgary Herald

His conclusion?

“In over two decades working in politics, government and law, I have never seen a stronger case to support a public policy intervention than there is for supervised consumption sites. They are life-saving health services during a public health emergency.”

As for neighbourhood impacts, he writes: “Studies have found declines in public drug use, unsafe disposal of syringes and crime in the vicinity of supervised consumption sites. Supervised consumption sites take drug consumption indoors, under supervision. The answer to concerns about localized impact isn’t fewer, but more supervised consumption sites with extended hours.”

Diverse perspectives

On Saturday, at the corner of York Road and Lewis Street, a small number of people watched as the protesters walked by.

“It’s not right. There shouldn’t be a site like that down here,” says Gerry Dore, left. He moved to the neighbourhood about six years ago. “It was nice and quiet. And then a year later, this showed up.” 

He says he hands out cigarettes and coins to people on the streets, and encourages them to calm down. He uses skills he honed while working for more than a decade at the Mustard Seed, a street church in Victoria, he says. 

But the situation now in Duncan is worse than he’s ever seen, all across Canada, he says. “I’m just ashamed of how ruined this town has got.” 

He wants to see a place built for the people on the streets where they can be taken and kept safe, he says.

Amanda Lomax has struggled to find secure housing in the Cowichan Valley for two years. Last June, she says she lost everything in a trailer fire, leaving her hiding in a tent on side roads for two months, her legs still bandaged from the burns. She now lives in a fifth wheel, and can’t find a stable place to park it. She says she’s among the “invisible homeless.”

Lomax says she heard about the protest 20 minutes before it started and immediately drove there to be a voice for the other side. “They say, ‘Always say your piece, even if your voice shakes.’” 

Lomax stopped me as I walked by. She says she had been meaning to reach out to The Discourse, because she was impressed to see that reporters made the effort to include voices of people struggling on the streets in their coverage of these issues.

Those protesting the wellness centre come from a place of privilege and a lack of understanding, she says. “Everyone deserves somewhere to be. Everyone deserves a home. And the first thing to do is not go out and protest against the individuals that are struggling. I think yes, put our kids first — but these people are people’s kids, too. Everyone is someone’s kids.”

At her lowest, Lomax says she’d come to this neighbourhood and cry in the McDonalds parking lot. It’s the people on the streets, not the people driving through with their trucks and SUVs, that bothered to check on her, she says. “The people that stopped and gave me a hug and asked me if I was okay when I was crying my eyes out because my house was gone were the people that were here.”

What, now?

The citizens’ action group remains dismayed that the wellness centre on York Road is set to move ahead.

“I received a letter that was sent to every single minister and health official and school board and tribe and council in the whole valley, and Victoria, saying, ‘Too bad, so sad,’” says Varga. “I think it behooves Island Health, and the political party in power, that they need to also look after the children. They can’t just pretend that there are no consequences to this action.”

A ministerial order requires B.C. health authorities to provide overdose prevention services during the ongoing overdose crisis and public health emergency. They are to do so “in any place there is a need for these services.”

Island Health has contracted Lookout Housing and Health Society to manage the overdose prevention services and a new safer supply pilot treatment program. Lookout will engage with the community on the planned services beginning this month, and on an ongoing basis, Island Health says. And a Community Advisory Committee will be set up, representing key stakeholders.

“We remain committed to working with the new service provider, local governments and neighbours to ensure a service model that both mitigates community impact while ensuring safe, accessible and critical health care services.”

Varga says the citizens’ action group would like to be included in any forthcoming consultations. “Certainly, we would gladly be part of that, because maybe we can influence.”