Content warning: this editorial discusses opioid-related deaths.
One Peterborough man has come up with a truly inventive means of passing the quarantime. Terry Freeburn, who owns Buy/Sell Network Realty Inc. at Water and Murray, noticed that some of the packages he had been ordering on Amazon, had gone missing upon arrival. He decided to take this matter into his own hands.
A January 13th post on Terry and Karen’s Facebook page reads:
Left this package for the porch pirates yesterday. Gone in a few hours. Hope they enjoy it is full of used kitty litter. Today I have to clean up some of Bear’s (our dog) dodo. I have [an] Amazon box just for that. I feel bad putting it in the garbage and the garbage man has to take it away so now I can leave it for someone who wants to take it away.
Yes, you read that right. A grown man is leaving his pet’s excrement in faux-Amazon packaging for unsuspecting would-be thieves to take. To make matters worse, Freeburn is also documenting this prank through video cameras that he has situated at the front entrance of Buy/Sell Realty’s Water St. property.
On January 19th, Freeburn published a video of someone walking up to the entrance of the building and leaving with the two boxes he had left out for pick-up. The caption reads, “Great way to get rid of the dog and cat pooh.”
Three days later, Freeburn provides his Facebook following with some perspective that helps to contextualize these actions: “I think the city has put up the white flag and will not do what they should do.”
He publishes some more security-camera photography, including an image of two police officers at his front door, who he says were investigating someone looking through vehicles. Another of two people on the back porch of his property who he alleges were “taking drugs [at] 10pm.” The fourth photo is of an ambulance parked in front of the Brock Mission.
I do not want to spend too much time recounting Freeburn’s sordid words and actions, because there are far more important topics to cover in this article, but I think Freeburn offers us a valuable entry point into the downtown developer/business-owner paradigm.
Freeburn writes, “Just want to thank the City of Peterborough, [Brock] Mission, One Roof, the new safe injection site, 5 Meth Clinics for providing money, food, shelter and various services to the multitude of drug addicts terrorizing downtown. Good job what you are doing is really working...Not.”
There is a lot to unpack here. I think from the outset, it is important to note that Freeburn is keen to conflate people who use drugs with the unhoused -- a widely-held misconception that is grounded in stereotyping. At a July 2019 public meeting about Peterborough’s opioid crisis, Dan Farrow, a Peterborough County/City Paramedic, said "We do a lot of overdoses on professionals making six figures."
Freeburn also mentions the ‘new safe injection site’ which, in fact, has not yet been approved by the Ontario Ministry of Health. The application was submitted to the provincial government in early December.
As Aras Mommertz previously reported in Arthur, last October the Peterborough AIDS Resource Network (PARN) acquired what was formerly the Greyhound Station on Simcoe St., and is now the Opioid Response Hub. Since then, Fourcast -- a community-based addiction treatment provider -- has become the lead applicant for the Consumption and Treatment Services (CTS) site. Other partners include the Peterborough 360 Degree Nurse Practitioner-Led Clinic (360NPLC) and Peterborough Drug Strategy (PDS).
The CTS site would offer “a safe and clean space for people to consume pre-obtained drugs under the supervision of health professionals,” alongside access to “sterile drug use equipment, education on safer use, basic health services, and referrals to addictions treatment, housing, and other social services.”
While the project awaits adequate funding, these organizations are collecting donations from the community through the Community Foundation of Greater Peterborough.
A Different Kind of Class Solidarity
Since this proposal was announced, we have witnessed Peterborough developers and downtown business owners come together in opposition to this life-saving initiative.
Will Pearson, a journalist at Peterborough Currents, recently published an article investigating a robo-call campaign that has been asking Peterborough residents ‘skewed’ questions about the CTS site. One citizen who received one of these calls, Margaret Slavin, described the questions as “the most biased I have ever encountered.”
It would appear as though someone has contracted a company called “RG Research Group” to target residents and ask leading questions in an effort to contrive data that would indicate community disapproval. Though details about this company are sparse and Pearson hasn’t been able to uncover who is behind this campaign, he was able to rule out all parties involved in the application for the CTS site, including the Ministry of Health, who is currently reviewing the application.
It is important to note here that community consultation regarding the proposed CTS site was conducted last fall. There were over 1 600 respondents to these consultation efforts, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. The Community Consultation Report reads “The majority of responses supported the site being downtown and in the specific location at 220 Simcoe Street.”
“Some participants felt strongly that the site must be located downtown, given that there is already substance use occurring in the area, that it is in close proximity to public transit, and based on their belief that the site would mean less public substance use in the downtown core.”
In a separate consultation focusing specifically on people who use drugs, 91% of the 122 respondents said they would use a CTS.
In early December, the Examiner published an article in which Don MacPherson, owner of Liftlock City Development Inc., (which owns the vacant lot across the street, which was formerly the Baskin-Robbins factory) provides commentary about the proposed CTS site.
MacPherson said that if plans for the CTS site goes through, his $40 million project would be ‘absolutely off the table.’ MacPherson, whose company now owns that entire block (with the exception of Jim’s Pizza), wants to build “an eight-story building with 87 apartments and ground-floor commercial space, a six-storey building with 42 apartments and a three-storey building for office and commercial use.”
In another Examiner article published just five days later, Andrew Vasson, VP of Seven Hills Developments, followed MacPherson’s lead, telling Joelle Kovach “We’re really invested down there… If you don’t have a really sound core in the downtown, the whole city suffers.”
Wasson believes that a Safe Consumption and Treatment Site would ‘dampen the appetite’ of private developers who want to ‘revitalize’ Peterborough’s downtown. Both MacPherson and Wasson acknowledge that more needs to be done for people who struggle with drug addiction in Peterborough, but neither of them think that downtown is the right place for these services to be located.
I have learned to read ‘revitalization’ as gentrification. When developers say they don’t want a safe consumption site, or a homeless shelter near their property, what they’re really telling us, is that they value property and profitability over human life.
They are also saying that they think their prospective tenants share the same hostility towards people who use drugs that they do. Again, we know that there is wide support in the community for this project.
It is important to mention here that the City supports this project, too. While they did not have input on the location of the proposed safe consumption site, Mayor Therrien and City Council have expressed their support for the CTS application.
When asked about the CTS site, Dave Smith told Peterborough Currents that “I am on record stating multiple times that I am supportive of a treatment based CTS… The application is being evaluated by experts at the Ministry and I will defer to their expert medical opinion.”
“Not In My Backyard”
All of these comments -- Freeburn’s, MacPherson’s, Wasson’s -- are made all the more insidious by the severity of the opioid crisis in our community, and across the country.
Early in 2020, advocates were already sounding alarms, warning that 2020 would be the worst year on record for opioid-related deaths. While many public health departments across the country have been necessarily focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, many frontline workers and public health experts have expressed concern that the opioid crisis has not been met with the same urgency and widespread mobilization of resources.
On February 12th, The Globe and Mail published a jarring cover story that memorializes 100 people who died of opioid toxicity during 2020. At least 5 233 Canadians lost their lives to opioid toxicity in 2020, making it the most deadly year on record for opioid-related deaths since Canada began tracking these statistics in 2016.
Michael Barnett, assistant professor at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, has offered further explanation about the relationship between these simultaneous public health emergencies:
“People have lost their jobs. Social and family interactions have been limited. And the pandemic itself is depressing and anxiety provoking. These are all stimuli that can stress the psyche and the finances of someone who has an addiction.”
Alexa Norton and Thomas Kerr of UBC’s Department of Medicine echo these concerns, and offer further explanation for the lethality of the contemporary crisis:
“For example, the Canadian–US border closure disrupted drug supply chains, increasing drug toxicity and extreme fentanyl concentrations. Social distancing and self-isolation measures, in combination with reduced access to services such as supervised consumption facilities, health care and other harm reduction services, have increased the risk of withdrawal, treatment interruptions, overdose, and mortality.”
Unfortunately, this holds true in Peterborough City and County, too. In 2019, there were 29 deaths linked to suspected opioid overdose. In 2020, 39 lives were lost to suspected opioid overdoses. In the first month of 2021 alone, Global News reported that there were 9 suspected opioid-related deaths. It is important to note that in order for a death to be attributed to opioids, it must be confirmed by a coroner -- a process that can often take time, which can explain why these numbers sometimes vary by source.
On February 2nd, Global News reported that Peterborough Public Health (PPH) would refrain from disclosing opioid-related data “as numbers are low enough to be identifiable leading to privacy concerns given the size of the community.”
Dr. Rosana Salvaterra, PPH’s medical officer of health, explained that “the partners, who are involved in local surveillance, so that would be our first responders, our hospital, police and ourselves, have decided to use that data for internal purposes right now.”
Local harm reduction advocate, Alex Bierk, responded to this announcement, writing “Ok I’ll speak up then — worse than it’s ever been — we can access new resources for a virus but we continue to not address the elephant in the room here. Over 70 people we knew GONE since 2019.”
In Peterborough, the opioid crisis has claimed more lives than COVID-19 -- almost four times as many since the pandemic began.
While there is an undoubted difficulty involved in managing these comorbidities, the mounting death counts in Ontario can surely be owed to the Ford government’s abysmal track record on this issue. In April 2019, while explaining his government’s decision to cut funding to several overdose prevention sites, the Premier cited a conversation he’d had with some “‘upset’ Cabbagetown residents.”
Ford said, "It's all right for people to say, 'Yes help 'em, help 'em," and then, “It's ok, help em, but 'not in my backyard.'"
When the Premier of Ontario uses regurgitated NIMBY rhetoric as the justification for policy decisions, that will impede access to life-saving medical treatment, he legitimizes a perspective that not only has little grounding in the footholds of reality, but also translates directly into more opioid-related deaths.
In that same press conference, Ford said “But with all due respect ... if I put one beside your house, you'd be going ballistic,” but who is he addressing? If he is talking about Terry Freeburn, he might be right. It is clear that Doug Ford, Don MacPherson, and Andrew Wasson share a similar logic that presupposes much about how people perceive people who use drugs.
In his interview with Joelle Kovach, Don MacPherson asks, “How are we going to entice people to come to our new development — which is brand new — with a safe injection site across the street?” before promptly answering his own question, “I think there would be a reluctance for people to live there.”
Developers hold a lot of sway in our city. They quite literally hold the keys to development -- what gets built, where, for how much, and in doing so, they often determine who has access. Their words, and their wallets, carry weight. It is dangerous to falsely equate the value of property and the value of people.
In the first article of her series, Examining the Examiner, Alexia Kambanis writes that the publication, “presents [Don MacPherson’s] NIMBY views as-is, painting drug users as too dangerous to live near (or as roadblocks to a profitable construction project) when the supervised injection site will likely make downtown Peterborough safer in the long run.”
We need to radically re-frame how we talk about, and conceive of the opioid crisis. When Terry Freeburn shares videos of people picking up his shit-filled faux-Amazon packages, his friends laugh -- they commend his practical joke, with no regard for how someone arrives on his porch in the middle of winter. Mr. Freeburn reminds us that we have a long way to go in shifting mainstream perceptions of people who use drugs.
When Dave Smith mentions deferring to the Ministry’s ‘expert medical opinion,’ I am reminded of a question that bears repeating: who are the experts?
You could argue that the experts are public health researchers, and frontline service providers, who seem widely in consensus about the efficacy of harm reduction strategies and supervised consumption services.
But the producers of Crackdown -- a podcast made by drug users that aims to “expose bad drug policy as the reason we have bad drugs” -- remind us of a different set of experts.
In their mission statement, they write: “Drug users are the experts. We’ve survived. We know policy better than policy-makers. We know law better than lawmakers. We know pharmaceuticals better than pharmacists.”
And they sure as hell know better than developers.
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