Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh heard the concerns of Cowichan Valley residents and business owners about drug addiction and homelessness during a stopover in Duncan on Saturday.
Singh joined Cowichan-Malahat-Langford MP Alistair MacGregor at Experience Cycling, where store owner Will Arnold led a group of concerned citizens who detailed the local issues to Singh, and offered some of their own ideas for solutions.
Experience Cycling is located in a particularly problematic area of town, between the Trans-Canada Highway and Whistler Street. Arnold has spent the last three years or so spearheading a group that has been working to clean up Whistler Street while homelessness and drug use has been on the rise. A lot of residents and business owners are concerned as more facilities are built in the area around the highway corridor to assist the homeless and addicted. The latest addition is a safe-injection site announced for York Street.
“I think as our group, we’re all about helping mankind, and we want to help everybody,” Arnold told Singh. “I just think as business owners and families and that, that we’re getting frustrated because there’s no transparency. We’re getting stuff that is brought in and put in front of us without sort of any consulting. And when we don’t have those options, that’s hard.”
Arnold, who says he has had 11 attempts on his life, has become a resource for the homeless, lending an ear, collecting old bikes, and helping track down missing family members, among other roles.
“I’ve turned into a bit of a social worker, and it’s hard for me to run my business,” he said. “I do care about our community, and for me, I’d love to see more transparency and more accountability.
“Someone is gonna get hurt. We need to start dealing with this problem. It’s hard on all ends, not just seeing the people that are addicted to it, but people in the community and all that.”
MacGregor acknowledged the need to come up with new solutions as addiction and homelessness problems increase.
“I think there’s a realization that the way we’re going about trying to deal with this problem using the old method is not working,” he said. “We have some ideas at the federal level, and I know there’s some ideas being implemented at the provincial level.”
Saturday’s event was not about finding solutions but for the politicians to hear the concerns. Singh assured the crowd that he was there to listen, and noted that his own father struggled with addiction.
“I saw it up close and personal and I want to do something about it, and I want to use evidence to make good decisions that will help us get better results and results that we all want,” he said. “We all want our safer communities, healthier communities, and there’s ways to do that, and I think we’ve got to be open to new ways of responding to a problem so that the results are actually better for everybody.”
Several members of the Cowichan Leadership Group were on hand, including Duncan Mayor Michelle Staples, School District 79 board chair Candace Spilsbury, Cowichan Valley MLA Sonia Furstenau, Cowichan Valley medical health officer Dr. Shannon Waters, and Cowichan Tribes Chief William Seymour.
Another local politician, North Cowichan councillor Tek Manhas, was among the first to speak, addressing the need to treat addiction rather than just providing safer drugs.
“Nobody thinks about treatment,” he said. “Everybody talks about these opioid [injection] centres. We need treatment; we don’t need more drugs coming into the community.”
MacGregor observed that the injection centres are a “stop-gap measure” intended to prevent overdoses and deaths due to fentanyl and carfentanil, and said that treatment is a critical component of the long-term solution.
Jaz Doman of the Citizens Action Group: A Voice for Our Children, pointed out that both the new injection site and the Warmland House homeless shelter are located a short walk from several schools: Cowichan Secondary, Quamichan School, Alexander Elementary, and Duncan Christian School. Students deal regularly with harassment, she said, or see addicts injecting drugs, and principals have to start their days by combing the school grounds for used needles and condoms.
“A quarter of Cowichan Valley students don’t need to witness this,” she said, wondering how much trauma will be perpetuated among students who are harassed.
A “wraparound” facility providing all the services required, and located away from the schools, would be a better solutions, Doman suggested.
“We are not saying it shouldn’t exist,” she said. “But there should be somewhere where all those facilities exist.”
Furstenau compared the opioid epidemic to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve responded to [COVID-19] in ways that no one ever expected we could respond,” she said. “We need to respond to [the opioid epidemic] in the same way.”
A candidate for the provincial Green Party leadership, Furstenau also called on all provincial parties to set aside their differences and deal with addiction and homelessness regardless of the results of the next election.
“We need parties to agree that these are some things that don’t need to be political anymore,” she said.