BC NDP orders RCMP to shut down Ridge Meadows Overdose Prevention Site

In BC, the rapid expansion of harm reduction services has prevented more than 3,000 possible overdose deaths during a 20-month period, according to a report from the BC Centre for Disease Control. There were 2,177 deaths during this period, but without overdose prevention sites, the number of overdose deaths would have been 2.5 times as high.

The same day the BCCDC released their findings, members of the Anita Place Tent City community, devastated by the recent overdose death of a community member, launched an unsanctioned overdose prevention site (OPS) in Maple Ridge. While the Minister of Addictions Judy Darcy and other politicians were busy lauding the “importance and effectiveness of harm reduction,” their BC NDP government became the first provincial government in Canada to order the police shutdown of an OPS.

For two years, Anita Place Tent City saved hundreds of lives as an unsanctioned and community-run OPS. In February, the City of Maple Ridge won a court injunction that Mayor Mike Morden has used to displace the vast majority of the camp’s residents, setting up a double-lined fence and hiring a team of security guards to police the site against “unverified” occupants. Anita Place is no longer accessible as a community space, which means drug users in Maple Ridge have lost the only safer site they had. The Province of British Columbia and Fraser Health have refused to open a new overdose prevention site in Maple Ridge, resulting in at least one overdose death since the closure of Anita Place.  

On June 5, 2019, drug users and supporters responded to government inaction by taking matters into their own hands. On a patch of grass outside the provincially-owned modular housing building on Royal Crescent in Maple Ridge, they launched the short-lived Ridge Meadows OPS. As they assembled the tent, two RCMP officers approached and threatened them with arrest. Lawyers from Pivot Legal Society began the argument that they continued to make for the rest of the day: the OPS is protected under Section 7 of the Charter – which guarantees life, liberty, and security of the person – and is sanctioned by a 2016 ministerial order under the Health Emergency Services Act to support the development of overdose prevention sites across BC.

The RCMP backed off while waiting for orders on how to proceed. In those few unharassed moments, three people came and used the OPS. All of them said they had been waiting for an OPS to open and felt lucky to be there. One man said, “I was feeling sick and needed equipment and a safe place to use. I really needed this!”

RCMP officers loiter while activists set up the OPS

Within half an hour, more than a dozen RCMP arrived on the scene. They closed the streets around the site and taped off the property, treating the life-saving OPS as a crime scene. RCMP officers chastised activists for being “argumentative and adversarial.” One officer said, “You don’t have permission. This isn’t the right way.” Dwayne Martin, a resident of Anita Place who has personally reversed more than 190 overdoses, explained to the police, “We’ve tried the other ways, they haven’t worked, and now our friends and family are dying. We have to take action. We can’t afford to wait.”

Another hour passed with the OPS locked down behind a police barricade. As rain began to fall, the RCMP gave us a deadline – until 4:00pm – to vacate the property or face arrest. Anna Cooper, a lawyer with Pivot Legal Society, pressed the officers, “Did you receive an order to shut down this site or are you acting on your own volition?” RCMP officers replied that the order came directly from BC Housing, the owner of the property that we had claimed for an emergency OPS. One officer explained, “BC Housing has asked us to tell you to leave because they can no longer enjoy the use of their property.” Ironically, the grassy area where the OPS tent was set up had been an unkempt, overgrown area until a volunteer cut it to prepare for the OPS.

Kat Wahamaa of Moms Stop the Harm and the Low Barrier Chorus

The RCMP managed to close the Ridge Meadows OPS without an arrest because, as OPS supporter Ivan Drury explained, “We decided to fold up our tent so that the RCMP couldn’t confiscate it, so we can fight another day.” The founding declaration of the Ridge Meadows OPS said the site would stay open until Fraser Health opened a permanent OPS in Maple Ridge. Under threat of arrest, the OPS activists made a closing declaration, challenging Fraser Health to identify property where volunteers can operate a temporary OPS until the government opens a permanent one. “If Fraser Health doesn’t dedicate a property to operate on by Monday June 10th, we’ll take community action again,” Drury said. “There are lives at stake and we can’t wait for the government bureaucracy.”

Maple Ridge is the Lower Mainland’s heartland of anti-homeless, anti-drug user hate. That the government and RCMP shut down an OPS where deadly stigma against drug users is even stronger, where a safer space to use is even more needed, means the BC NDP is more attentive to a rising far right populism than to the needs of communities vulnerable to homelessness and overdose. We experienced the results of this set of priorities when the BC NDP ordered police attacks on Camp Namegans in Saanich last September, but it still came as a surprise that they would shut down an OPS in opposition to their own public health order.

If activists in BC – the epicenter of the crisis and the only Province with a ministerial order supporting OPS’s – can be threatened with arrest for starting an OPS in a community in need, then harm reduction activists everywhere are at risk. As Pivot Legal Society said in an open letter to the Provincial government written two days after the shutdown of the Ridge Meadows OPS, the BC NDP’s decision to criminalize life-saving interventions in Maple Ridge will likely have a chilling effect on the rest of the country, potentially discouraging the establishment of unsanctioned OPS’s and other activist responses to the overdose crisis. That is exactly the opposite of what the BC Centre for Disease Control report, which these same Ministers are celebrating, says they should do.

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