Mayor Al Siebring Comments On VIHA’s Decision To Put The New Overdose Prevention Site At 5878 York Road

The Vancouver Island Health Authority (VIHA) has decided to place a new Overdose Prevention Site (OPS) at 5878 York Road, across the street from the Warmland House Shelter.

This decision has created a lot of public opposition because 5878 York Road is within two blocks of two schools: the Quamichan Campus of Cowichan Secondary and the Alexander Elementary School. The Cowichan Valley School Board passed a motion opposing this VIHA decision. Here are media reports from the CBC and the Cowichan Valley Citizen about this public opposition.

5878 York Road, North Cowichan, BC in September 2020 (photo: Duncan Taxpayers)
5878 York Road, North Cowichan, BC in September 2020 (photo: Duncan Taxpayers)

Here is a map showing the location of 5878 York Road in relation to the two schools on Beverley Street:

North Cowichan Mayor Al Siebring posted a lengthy comment on Facebook about VIHA’s decision to place an Overdose Prevention Site within two blocks of two schools. We have reproduced Mayor Siebrings‘s Facebook post below:

“Hi everyone. First of all.. apologies for the length of this post. It was precipitated by some questions asked by Don T Hatton and Erin O’keefe-Whiteford in one of the strings on this site. (There’s so much stuff that I can’t find those original posts back right now, so I’m just putting this up here as a stand-alone post.)

I’ll start with the central question Don T Hatton asked: “Under what or who’s authority was (Dr.) Shannon (Waters) looking for property?” The answer is that Dr. Waters was operating under a direct order from the top boss in her ministry… (then) Health Minister Terry Lake, in Ministerial Order M-488. The order reads in part, that the minister “order(s)… regional health boards to provide, on the advice of the provincial health officer… overdose prevention services for the purpose of monitoring persons who are at risk of overdose, and providing rapid intervention as and when necessary, as ancillary health services, in any place there is a need for these services…”

And language is important here. This is an ORDER. It’s not a “suggestion.” It’s like when your boss “orders” you to do something. You have two choices. Follow the order or quit your job. (You can see the full order here https://www.bclaws.ca/civix/document/id/mo/hmo/2016_m488)

Don T Hatton goes on to ask: “Was there a committee she reported to or was this a Shannon Waters personally motivated project?” The answer is absolutely not. To the degree that she was involved in discussions around this project, it was the result of a direct order from her top boss, the Minister of Health, per M488 above. “What are Shannon Waters Qualification to determine a location does she have urban planning credentials?” Again, that’s not really germane to the discussion. To be clear, it wasn’t Dr. Waters who personally “chose” the location. She is the Medical Health Officer for our region, but Island Health/VIHA has a whole raft of bureaucrats who are responsible for siting various installations within the Health Authority’s boundaries. I can only assume that some of those folks have some urban planning experience, but even if they did, the “order” overrides any urban planning criteria. And for clarity, it appears this “site selection group” is headed up by James Hanson, who’s the Vice President of Clinical Operations for Central/North Vancouver Island (which is all of the Island except for the Greater Victoria area.)

Don T Hatton also asks: “If she (Waters) was reporting to a committee why at the very least was no one in the community who would be impacted by the location invited to participate on the committee?” That’s a question you’ll have to ask Island Health. I don’t believe there was a “committee” in the sense of a local group that Island Health “consulted” with before determining the location. Whether we like it or not, (and for the record, I don’t like it at all), M488 basically makes Island Health a law unto themselves. They are not mandated to consult with anyone.

Don T Hatton then goes on to ask: “Why did it take the pressure of A Voice for Children to finally motivate the school board and the City/ Municipality to send a letter objecting to the location? Does their failure to speak up mean they were supportive of the location of this facility prior to the group pressing them? I would guess the city, the municipality, and the school district were all aware this was coming.”

I first became aware of the decision to site this centre on York Road in late March. At that time, I approached the landlord, and asked him not to sign the lease. Our staff, when we heard that this location was “on the radar”, offered Island Health a list of local residents and businesses, and strongly suggested they consult with those folks before finalizing the lease. They chose not to do that, and made their announcement of a site selection on April 3rd.
I responded on that day, expressing strong concerns about the location choice. You can see my initial reaction at https://bit.ly/2Ddzssm.. again, that was posted on the day that Island Health announced its site selection.

So no, I was not supportive of the location.

But equally, I was very surprised at the (initial) lack of reaction from the community. I tried to alert folks this was coming. There was a formal announcement from Island Health. And the announcement was covered in the Cowichan Valley Citizen (shorturl.at/oCDR2).

With that information out in the public domain, I sat back and waited to see what the community response would be. The fact is that for four months, there was very little of that response. Without putting too fine a point on this, I would simply ask Mr. Hatton – in response to his question – “Why did it take the community four months – from early April until early August – to finally get worked up about this?”

But when it became apparent that there was considerable community opposition to this, I took the first opportunity I had – a Council meeting on August 19th – to ask Council for authorization to write a letter to Island Health, objecting to the lack of community consultation. That letter was sent the following week. (shorturl.at/zGLP1)

I want to expand on a couple of things about that letter I sent. First of all, the motion that Council passed was clear that the letter should express our concerns about the lack of public consultation about the site, and ask Island Health to pause their planning until that consultation was completed. But the letter also included the line “The location that was ultimately chosen is inappropriate and will surely have negative impacts on the surrounding businesses and residents.” One of my councillors has objected to the fact that I even included that line, because it went beyond what was authorized in the motion. The argument is that Council did not conclude that the site was “inappropriate.” Which, technically, is correct.

The letter also references discussions at the Leadership Group about this issue, when I wrote that “There was broad agreement… including at the Cowichan Leadership Group (of which Dr. Waters is a part), that (the “clustering” of these kinds of services) was absolutely not a desired outcome.” That line from the letter came up at a Leadership Group meeting last week, where I was criticized for referencing that “agreement” when no formal motion to that effect had been assented to. In fact, some in the Leadership Group insist that they don’t even remember there being any “agreement” on this at all, although both SD79 Board Chair Candace Spilsbury and I clearly recall this discussion.

All of which to say, the objections to that letter illustrate the political minefield that this file has created.

Don T Hatton asks one other question. “Why is it that every project carried out by VIHA and others connected to homeless and addiction issues are done under a veil of silence?” That’s a bit pejorative, but I understand the thinking behind it. The reality is that Island Health – indeed any agency of the Provincial Government – is not bound to be open or transparent about these things. There’s an obscure section of the BC “Interpretation Act” (Section 14(2)) which essentially says that those agencies are completely exempt from local land use and zoning regulations in terms of siting provincially-run buildings and installations. That covers everything from sites like the one on York Road to the Site C Hydro installation up north. Simply put, the province can put whatever it wants wherever it wants.

And that’s kind of central to this entire discussion. I know some people have accused me of being patronizing when I have said this in the past, but the reality is that if the local politicians (myself, Mayor Michelle Staples, or anyone else), had set our hair on fire and drawn a line in the sand in our opposition to this location, we would have lost. Period. Full stop. We would have set ourselves up for failure, and in the process of doing that, we would have created false and unattainable expectations in community.

Now to Erin O’keefe-Whiteford‘s questions: “When was the local governments/council and school board made aware that this facility was being placed here?” As I wrote above, I first became aware of this in late March. I spoke to the landlord, and our staff urged Island Health at that time to engage in some community conversations. The second question Erin asks is a bit puzzling to me. “And why at that time was a community consultation not announced by our locally elected officials? And please don’t blame VIHA.” Clearly, it was not our role to be “announcing community consultation.” What could we possible hope to achieve with “community consultation” that would be sponsored by local government, when – per s.14(2) of the Interpretation Act – we had no legal standing to have any input on this at all? Again, this would have set up community expectations. Perhaps people would have felt “heard”, yes, but it would have been dishonest for us to ask the community what they thought, when we knew upfront that this input would mean absolutely nothing to the process.

Erin O’keefe-Whiteford, you write, “Please don’t blame VIHA”. I’m not, but at the same time, we have to work within the legislative boundaries that are proscribed for us. You also wrote that we are “way past the blame game.” I totally agree. This isn’t about “blaming” anyone. It’s about the process.

One other observation about Erin’s comment, where she writes… “I have NO reason to believe that VIHA gives two hoots about this community. And I’m well aware that they have No transparency about anything that they do. So I didn’t and don’t expect any help from them.” Sadly, I agree with you. I’ve been saying this for the past 14 years or so to anyone who will listen, ever since the debacle around the Cowichan Lodge, which was when VIHA lost all credibility in this community. And it has never recovered from that. I have observed a culture there that is anathema to community consultation and inclusion.

In fact, I raised that very issue with Dr. Waters a few weeks ago in a slightly different context. VIHA had been intimating for weeks that they were on the verge of choosing the operator for the Wellness and Recovery Centre. But they couldn’t tell us who that operator would be because they were awaiting all the final details and signoff on the actual contract. (I believe there’s a formal announcement coming today that the contract will be with Lookout Services, the same organization that will be managing our Drinkwater Road Supportive Housing site.) But I compare VIHA’s approach on that messaging to that of BC Housing, who openly announced their intention to sign on with Lookout for the Drinkwater site more than a month before the formal contract was signed. And Lookout was present at our Council meeting in July to talk about their plans for community engagement on the Drinkwater site in the context of how they generally operate. Again, that appearance before our Council was weeks before the contract was signed, but it shows a completely different approach to – and respect for – the community.

I want to conclude with a brief comment on the letter I received back from Mr. Hanson yesterday. (I note that [ ] had already posted a copy of that letter elsewhere in this group, but I’ll link to it again for ease of reference You can find it at shorturl.at/ahnuO)

I recognize that there is a lot of anger about this letter. But honestly, it’s pretty much what I expected. Given all of what I wrote above, (and I’ve been saying this for months), I honestly don’t think Island Health will “change its mind” about this location. Whether we like it or not (and I don’t), the law is on their side when it comes to this siting.

So I would urge everyone to double down and work within the paradigm that we are presented with. There’s a couple of encouraging things in Mr. Hanson’s letter, including the commitment to “engagement on the service model”. It’s not completely clear to me how fulsome this “engagement” will be, but it’s at least an opportunity to talk to them about the interface between the community and the “services” that will be provided at the centre. Mr. Hanson also writes that they want to “(work) with the new service provider, local governments and neighbours to ensure a service model that both mitigates community impact while ensuring safe, accessible and critical health care services.”

And as part of this, there’s a plan to set up a “Community Advisory Committee”. To me, this infers a process wherein the real, on-the-ground concerns about street disorder can be addressed. For example, there is already a strong push for VIHA to pay for security around the site.. not just while it’s open, but on a 24/7 basis.

These are the kinds of questions where a Committee like this could apply appropriate pressure to address the concerns as they crop up.

I’ll leave it at that for now. You should also know that I’ll be leaving town for a few weeks of grandkid time this weekend, and won’t be back until Sept 28th, so my engagement on this will be limited for the next few weeks. (I’m actually going to try to limit my screen time for the first time since the start of COVID in March.)

Thank you for reading all the way to the bottom. I don’t expect my answers above to satisfy everyone (anyone?) but they’re my honest assessment of where we are on this file. Please take them for what they’re worth.”

Would you like to leave a comment or question about anything on this post?

2 thoughts on “Mayor Al Siebring Comments On VIHA’s Decision To Put The New Overdose Prevention Site At 5878 York Road

  1. In fact, the site is 400 metres from Quamichan Secondary, 400 metres from Cowichan Senior Secondary, 500 metres from Alexander Elementary and couple of blocks from Duncan Christian School. These schools educate as almost 2,000 students or almost 25% of Cowichan Valley’s K-12 students.

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