Well over 300 concerned citizens marched from Cowichan Secondary School to Quamichan School on Saturday morning, Sept. 19, to voice their opposition to the location of Island Health’s new Wellness and Recovery Centre.
The march passed by the location of the centre on York Road, which will provide services, including a safe injection site, to people with substance abuse and mental health issues. Organizers of the march are not opposed to the centre but to its location, which is close to four schools — Cowichan Secondary, Quamichan School, Alexander Elementary and Duncan Christian School — as well as the Cowichan Community Centre, Cowichan Aquatic Centre and Cowichan Sportsplex.
“We understand the service is very much needed,” said Jas Doman, one of the founders of A Voice for Our Children. “But it is not needed 400 metres from Quamichan School, it is not needed 400 metres from Cow High, and it is not needed 500 metres from Alexander Elementary.
“We just want to feel heard. We want to feel heard by [Island Health]. They didn’t speak to one person before they did this.”
Doman said that she has spoken to some of those who will be served by the centre, and even they don’t think it is in the right place.
Among those who took part in the march was Jessalyn Fielden-Diaczuk, a Grade 11 student at Cowichan Secondary and former Quamichan student. She said her brother’s friends have been threatened with a knife, and she has been yelled at by homeless people and addicts in the neighbourhood around the schools. Students used to have to walk from Cow High to Quamichan for classes, which she remembered as unnerving.
“When the schools were connected, and we’d have to walk between schools, that was super scary,” she said. “I’ve seen people with needles in their arms. I live just a few blocks from school, but I can’t walk to school. If I do, I have to avoid roads through certain places.”
Once they gathered at Quamichan, protesters listened to speeches from local business leaders and residents of the area near Warmland House and the new Wellness and Recovery Centre, talking about the changes in the community over the last decade, and concerns about how the increase in substance abuse and homelessness has affected health care and education in the Cowichan Valley.
“It’s absolutely ludicrous that we have to do this,” said Florie Varga, another founder of A Voice for Our Children. “This was done under a veil. There was no community consultation or impact assessment. This is direly needed, but there are multiple interests in a community, and all those interests need to be considered.”
Students attend school 189 days a year, Varga noted, which is 189 days that they are exposed to the drug use and associated growing problems in the neighbourhood. School administrators, meanwhile, are tasked with cleaning up used needles and feces from the school grounds to keep children safe. Island Health is not taking responsibility for what happens outside of the facilities they operate, she said.
Sisters Sarah and Mandy Winter talked about growing up in the neighbourhood, where their father, Rob, operated Fun Pacific Golf Centre on Beverly Street. Sarah said she has travelled and lived all over the world, but has never felt as unsafe as she does now on her family’s property.
“Over the years since Warmland shelter was put in place, I’ve watched the area turn from a safe community with four schools surrounding it to more of a slum,” Mandy said. “Warmland was promised to be drug and alcohol free, and before the business [Fun Pacific] closed, we were having to walk the property every day to collect used needles that had been used for drugs, concerned that a patron could take a wrong step or that a child could pick one up without realizing it.”
Mandy Winter was one of several speakers who acknowledged that the need exists for a safe injection site, but emphasized that York Road is not the place for it.
“I understand that we can’t turn our backs on those in society that need us,” she said. “I have seen first-hand what addiction can do in my family, and I feel for those that are affected and have loved ones fighting for their lives. What I don’t understand is having a safe-injection site in an area that’s already struggling. Having these services, although much needed, so close to schools and businesses that have struggled for years is not only outrageous but having it next to a shelter that has attracted criminals and addicts from other areas is only going to make the problem worse.”
Don Hatton has a front-row view of the problems in the York Road area and the Trans-Canada Highway corridor from the Hatton Insurance Agency, and said, like Mandy Winter, that he is not against providing assistance to those who cannot help themselves, but this is not the way to do it.
“Just because you are in a bad place does not give you permission to become lawless, to destroy property, to have sex in public, and make it unsafe for others to use public property,” he said. “I am not opposed to assisting these people in a bad situation. In fact, I believe it is our responsibility to help them. What I am opposed to is what we are facing today: the assistance being provided is leading to the destruction of entire neighbourhoods, as it is right now in Lewis Street, Whistler Street and Ypres Street. No one in government seems to consider that neighbourhoods where they are setting up addiction facilities are homes to hard-working honest people…
“Why is it OK for government to put our children and families and property values and futures at risk? Why is it regular citizens’ lives are less important than those in the street, many of whom are there by choice?”
Will Arnold, owner of Experience Cycling and a longtime proponent of cleaning up the area around Whistler Street, as well as an ally to the homeless and addicted in the area, urged representatives of local and provincial governments to put politics and personal feelings aside to help solve the problems in the Duncan and North Cowichan area.
“I want you to sit down together,” he said. “And communicate and solve this problem and give the community a challenge to work with you to come up with solutions to help our community as a community.”
Only one local politician — North Cowichan councillor Tek Manhas — was visible at the march.
Despite attempts by some participants to turn the protest into a partisan issue, Doman doesn’t want to see it become politically divisive.
“This is not a left versus right issue,” she said. “This is about keeping kids safe.”
Organizers and participants in the march are continuing to oppose the site of the Wellness and Recovery Centre. They can be found on Facebook at A Voice For Our Children Citizen Action Group.