By Lethbridge Herald on September 28, 2020.
As they headed into their second night of operation on Saturday, the Lethbridge Overdose Prevention Society met its first opposition.
The group, which formed three weeks after the province stopped funding for ARCHES, set up a tent that acted as an unsanctioned overdose prevention site Friday night at Galt Gardens in response to the city’s ongoing opioid crisis.
But with social media rumblings of angry protesters following Friday night, the LOPS moved its operation to the Civic Centre track Saturday evening.
It didn’t take too long for the protesters to find the new location, and while there was shouting and profanity, there was no violence as the Lethbridge Police Service monitored the scene.
“(Friday) night was very quiet,” said Tim Slaney, a former ARCHES employee and organizer with the Lethbridge Overdose Prevention Society. “We were definitely expecting for a lot of contact with police and members of the community. We didn’t find that at all. We kind of flew under the radar. We were hoping for a repeat of that (Saturday). There’s obviously quite a bit more attention and to that end we decided to relocate for at least one evening.
“We saw quite a few protesters and we had seen on social media quite a lot of angry language and angry intentions and we decided that instead of making a scene at a park and jeopardizing the safety of our local volunteers we would rather set up at a safe second location.”
Shortly after setting up their 10-by-15 foot tent on Saturday, however, the protesters arrived.
“I think it’s very evident that they’re very angry,” said Slaney. “They came in yelling and, honestly, with quite a bit of threats, which we found very unsettling. Obviously, we’re still here and we still intend to do the work we need to do. I just ask that everybody watching the reaction would acknowledge everybody is here because we want what’s best for the community. We want people to heal and get better, to live to see another day and live full lives. I’d appeal to people who come in and yell and threaten to please sit down and have a dialogue with us. We may never agree, but we don’t need to waste our time doing this. We, now more than ever, need to work together for something for Albertans.”
Sarah Villebrun, who lives a block out of the downtown core, made her opposition to the LOPS clear.
“I am aggravated,” she said. “This is completely illegal for them to be setting up something like this. Essentially, they’re operating a medical clinic with no licence to do so. They are helping people administer narcotics. The world has forgotten that narcotics are illegal, despite the fact they’re painting the picture that they’re saving lives. It’s just as easy for them to walk around with naloxone and save those lives. We have a supervised consumption site set up at a resource centre on 2 Avenue North and it’s absolutely unnecessary to set (this) up half a block away from my home.”
Villebrun acknowledges there’s an opiate crisis in the city. However, as a recovering addict who is still actively involved with many people who use narcotics, she said pop-up tents like the LOPS are unnecessary.
“We can recognize it’s a problem,” said Villebrun. “However, even those who are still caught in addiction themselves know the steps to take to make sure they’re safe while they’re using narcotics. They know about the supervised consumption site that is open and they know how to use naloxone. The community is aware of what’s happening and, quite frankly, it’s things like this that make it seem like it’s a lot worse in Lethbridge than it truly is.
“There are resources and treatment available. The wait times for treatment centres are not as absurd as people think. I have called for many addicts multiple times to assist getting them into treatment centres and helping people fill out applications. I’m a regular citizen and do not work for any organization and even I know the wait times are not that long and the resources are available. So the crisis is not what former ARCHES employees are trying to make it out to be.”
Slaney said the province’s response to the opioid crisis is not working in Lethbridge.
“We have seen a real surge in deaths and their solutions are nowhere close to what we need to stop those. We have seen a tripling in overdose death rates this year, which is completely unprecedented. With that in mind, opening an overdose prevention site with one-10th the capacity of the one they closed is simply ridiculous.”
Slaney said the LOPS tent comes with a medical bag with life-saving materials such naloxone.
“We are providing a safe place for people to come and use their drugs in a space where people who have training and experience in responding to overdose will be able to witness any events such as an overdose and act as a first responder and administer an antidote and immediately contact EMS.”
Despite Saturday’s confrontation, Slaney said the LOPS intends to continue.
“I would say, if anything, this was an encouraging night. This was very much a worst-case scenario for what would happen going forward and we weathered it. We were able to get set up and navigate the police and protesters. So I see no reason why we can’t continue to do this.”
Police and City bylaw officials were on hand as the group again set up Monday night at Galt Gardens. A ticket was issued for not having a permit and officials pointed out that at the time no illegal activity was occurring.
“It has been clearly identified that the city is not in a position to issue permits for any sort of illegal activity,” said City bylaw enforcement officer Dave Henley.
Follow @DWoodardHerald on Twitter