I used to walk the full length of Toronto’s Sherbourne Street twice a day. At the bottom are middle-class condos, where I lived. At the top is Postmedia Place, where I worked. But in the middle was the closest thing the city has to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside – a community of people whose lives revolve around drug consumption, drug dealing and all the social turmoil that comes with it.
Everyday there was a new scene to witness in and around Toronto’s notorious Moss Park neighbourhood. Sometimes it was dreadful violence. Or paramedics responding to someone who, in a drug induced haze, managed to get injured.
But there were also many acts of kindness between people who were just trying to make it through the day in the face of crushing poverty, addiction, mental illness and whatever it was from their past that had brought them to this point in life.
I haven’t lived in that area for over five years. But I was back there the other week on a very cold night and witnessed a scene that underscored how bad things have become.
I had parked on a side street around the corner from an injection site and as I was exiting my car a near naked man came running manically around the corner from Sherbourne. Close on his heels was another man who was trying to grab him.
It first looked like an assault but then the man fell to the ground in physical distress and the other man – dressed much more presentably – was trying to pull him back around the corner. It soon became clear that this was an addict fleeing the site and a worker from the facility trying to drag him back in.
It didn’t work. The man slumped on the cold concrete. Another worker came out to join the first one. They stood over the man keeping watch until an ambulance came. I don’t know how the story ends.
This just can’t go on. And yet it does. Whether it’s Vancouver, Toronto or other cities across the country, these sorts of scenes are getting worse and more frequent.
People see it. They feel it. The numbers back it up.
“Canada has seen significantly elevated numbers of opioid-related deaths and other harms since surveillance began in 2016,” the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) wrote on its Health Infobase site last month. “The public health crisis is having a tragic impact on people who use substances, their families and communities across the country, and is shaped by a wide range of factors.”
There have been 32,632 opioid deaths in Canada between January 2016 and June 2022. During the beginning of the tally, there were 8 deaths a day. Now it’s on average 20 deaths per day.
The other thing that’s grown is the number of injection sites. Vancouver’s Insite facility was for years the only one in the country, but now every major city has them.
While correlation doesn’t equal causation, the opioid crisis has worsened as more sites open and the government offers more of what they call a safe supply of drugs.
But there is hope that fresh sets of eyes are now coming to the issue, willing to reassess some of the rigid talking points about harm reduction.
Ken Sim, the new mayor of Vancouver, campaigned on creating a free 24-hour recovery centre for addicts.
Mark Sutcliffe, the new mayor of Ottawa, campaigned on tackling “substance use disorder” without any reference to more harm reduction.
(Unfortunately, Toronto under Mayor John Tory doesn’t seem particularly focused on recovery.)
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith has appointed Marshall Smith, a former addict who lived on the streets for several years, as her chief of staff and he’s expected to play a leading role in constructing a dozen more recovery centres throughout the province.
Let’s hope momentum builds and it turns into a much bigger push for recovery. It could even go national, with cross-partisan support from federal politicians.
Nobody is saying that these are easy issues to solve. But I also don’t think anyone would argue that the status quo is working. Things need to change.