Council politics taken out of Ottawa supervised injection site debate after letter by mayor

Council politics have been sucked out of the debate over supervised injection sites with Mayor Jim Watson declaring the public health board as being the ultimate authority.

According to a letter Watson wrote in response to an anticipated application for a supervised injection site, Ottawa Public Health’s board has the final say on the issue.

The Sandy Hill Community Health Centre is close to submitting a request to the federal government to have a site at its Nelson Street facility.

The health centre needs the City of Ottawa to write a letter responding to the application.

Watson wrote the letter last month as chief executive officer of the city. His office provided a copy to the Citizen on Wednesday.

In the letter, Watson details the legal rationale for the health board having “jurisdiction and governance” to establish a “formal position” on supervised injection sites in Ottawa.

That means the matter is unlikely to land on city council’s agenda and have politicians debate the merits and weaknesses of supervised injection sites, even though Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins has suggested municipal governments must decide.

The city’s health board – though far from non-political, since six of the 11 members are city councillors – has voted in favour of supporting supervised injection sites in Ottawa.

Watson, in expressing his personal views, has been skeptical about supervised injection sites, saying he would rather focus on treatment programs. When the health board voted on supervised injection sites last June, Watson said he respected the board’s role and suggested that’s where the matter should be discussed.

His office confirmed Wednesday his position hasn’t changed on supervised injection sites.

The Sandy Hill Community Health Centre plans to submit its application for a supervised injection site this month if its board of directors shows support on Jan. 18.

The health centre needs to collect seven opinion letters but executive director David Gibson said it might submit the application even if all the letters aren’t in before that date. He’s still waiting to hear from the Ottawa Police Service and the Ontario ministries of health and community safety and corrections.

Gibson said it’s an “amazing move” by the mayor to keep council politics out of the decision to establish a supervised injection site.

“It shows that the mayor and the city are acknowledging a public health issue,” Gibson said.

Gibson questioned if there would be enough votes on Ottawa city council to support a site in the capital.

(In Toronto, a proposal for three supervised injection sites was subject to a vote last July at council, which overwhelmingly supported the initiative. As well, a Forum Research poll conducted last May found a slight majority of Ottawans approved a safe injection site. )

There are other health agencies in Ottawa interested in applying for a supervised injection site. Ottawa Inner City Health has also indicated its interest in a site.

If municipal taxpayers were to help fund a supervised injection site, the matter would more likely come to council.

In the Sandy Hill health centre’s case, it would need $1.4 million annually from the province to operate a site.

Watson notes in his letter, “there is no funding allocated for this initiative in either the City of Ottawa or Ottawa Public Health budgets.”

By Jon Willing
Source: Ottawa Citizen