An unsanctioned Maple Ridge overdose prevention site lasted less than an hour last week before the RCMP blocked access and advocates shut down the effort.
The site, housed in a tent, was intended to be a safe place for people to use drugs, with trained volunteers available to administer naloxone or other care if needed.
The Fraser Valley city has been a centre of conflict with advocates for the homeless battling neighbours and municipal officials.
This week, advocates for an overdose prevention site tried a new approach, occupying Fraser Health’s Surrey headquarters to demand action.
“We’re meeting at the blenz,” read a text from Listen Chen, one of nine participants in the protest.
Ivan Drury, an organizer with the Alliance Against Displacement, told the other activists on the coffee shop patio that they plan to occupy the fourth floor office.
The goal, he says, is to stage a sit-in until managers agree to meet with them to discuss establishing a new overdose prevention site in Maple Ridge.
Nobody, he tells the group, will be arrested.
The group arrives in the public lobby on the building’s fourth floor and Drury begins chanting “No more deaths! No more deaths! No more deaths!”
The receptionists snap out of their seats and hit a silent alarm under the desk, calling for security, while Drury begins distributing cardboard signs with messages written in Sharpie.
As the group demands to speak to Fraser Health executives, an employee buzzes through a glass door at the back of the waiting room and Drury pounces.
He grabs the door and forces his way into the room beyond. Fraser Health employees scramble to block his path, explaining in exasperated tones that the area is off limits to the public.
Eventually, the employees relent and the group funnels into the area beyond the locked door.
In 2018, 1,489 people died from overdoses in B.C. This year in the Fraser Health region, overdose deaths are projected to decrease in all municipalities but three — Chilliwack, Langley and Maple Ridge.
The protesters repeatedly asked health authority staff why they haven’t taken more action on the crisis. The gathered employees simply stand watching in silence.
The activists wait to meet with health authority executives, watched carefully by security guards and a line of employees who are blocking them from moving further into the area.
Drury and the others take a seat in the kitchen, meant to be a break area for employees. Some workers edge past to access the fridge for their lunch as activists wonder how long it will take for the police to arrive.
While the protesters wait, Amy Courtepatte reads from a prepared statement with two demands: for Fraser Health to choose a location for a temporary overdose prevention site, and for them to build a permanent one.
Courtepatte lost her boyfriend to an overdose after a Maple Ridge tent city called Anita Place was closed by the city in March. She says he had nowhere else to use drugs but nearby woods — and died alone as a result.
“We gave Fraser Health until Monday, June 10, to take immediate actions to open an OPS [Overdose Prevention Site], and here we are, waiting for the province to stop capitulating to local anti-poor, anti-drug-user bigotry and help us save the lives of our friends and family.”
An RCMP officer is finally let into the room and introduces himself to Chen, who explains why the group has stormed the offices.
The officer agrees to facilitate a meeting with executives if the protesters will leave the secure area and return to the public lobby. Chen agrees.
Dave Diewert, a long-time advocate for drug users, shares his story while Drury, Courtepatte and others meet with Fraser Health managers.
“I was part of the group that opened the unsanctioned, safe injection site at 327 Carroll Street in 2003,” he says. “It takes action on the part of the community, and hearing the impact of the overdose crisis, to push things into view. We have to fight for these spaces using means that are deemed unsanctioned.”
“It’s not a community like other communities,” explains Teresa Dettling, describing the anti-homeless prejudice in Maple Ridge. “I’ve never seen a culture that has so much hatred towards them.”
The police exacerbate the problem, she explains as she fights back tears.
“My daughter and I were handing out doughnuts at Anita Place, and a bunch of people were screaming at us. The police just laughed. That was such a horrible message for my daughter to get: that the police don’t care about her. She’s going to grow up and remember how handing out doughnuts to homeless people puts you at risk for being attacked.”
“They have committed to working on the two demands,” says Drury as he emerges from the meeting to applause and hugs from other activists.
Drury says the protest highlighted how much had been lost when the Anita Place tent city had closed.
“When the camp was taken away, I didn’t even realize until now how much was actually stolen from the community,” he says. “It wasn’t services that the government was already providing, it was all these services that people created themselves with nothing.”
Hours after the protest, Fraser Health released a general statement and denied agreeing to making any “firm commitments” to protesters.