After Saskatchewan's government once again declined to support the province's only supervised drug consumption site in this year's budget, supporters of Prairie Harm Reduction (PHR) took to the streets in Saskatoon to show their support for the organization and criticize the government's decision.
Chokecherry Studios organized the physically distanced rally on April 7, and dozens of supporters turned out with signs and banners.
Jason Mercredi is executive director of Prairie Harm Reduction, which runs the consumption site along with a long list of services for people living with addictions, homelessness and trauma in the city's core. He said the community values the work his organization does and want to be heard.
"These are their friends, these are their families, and these are they themselves who are at risk of overdosing and dying," said Mercredi. "When you have 400 people who have died from an overdose in the last 14 months, we're not on a good track here as a province."
Mercredi called the budget "really a letdown" for his organization. Only one per cent of the Ministry of Health's budget for the upcoming year was allocated to tackling addictions. Mercredi said the programs the government has chosen to support do not reflect the most urgent needs.
"We're seeing a half a million dollar investment in things like an awareness campaign," he said. "I'm pretty sure the entire province knows that hundreds of people are dying, so what is that campaign going to do? It's just going to tell the people of Saskatchewan that 400 people have died and they haven't done anything to stop it."
PHR had applied for $1.3 million in government funding so it could expand its hours, hire more staff and not have to rely on fundraising to pay its only paramedic.
Documents obtained by the Canadian Press and released Tuesday showed provincial health officials who had been considering the funding proposal had found that harm reduction initiatives save lives and money without risking public safety. Given these findings, Mercredi wonders why the province did not follow through.
"There's clearly choices being made," said Mercredi. "They're not based in science. They're not based on data. ... This government continually chose neglect … half-measures and doublespeak. We're here to tell them that this has to stop and they need to start listening to the community when we tell them that this is a major issue that needs a real investment."
Saskatchewan's Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Edward Hindley said Tuesday that the government had not decided to support the site this year because of "limited dollars." For Mercredi, this argument does not hold water.
"We hear talk about 'there's limited dollars to go around,'" said Mercredi. "Well, we know the dollars aren't that limited, because they're finding money for things like remand centres, they're finding money for things like an awareness campaign."
PHR has also been told that it is "not out of the running" for next year. Mercredi said this response shows a lack of urgency as the death toll continues to rise.
"We need funding now," he said. "We can't wait another year. We can't wait for another 400 people to die to be told again that we might be in the line the following year."
In the meantime, PHR will continue to rely on donations from supporters and community partners, and will also be launching a clothing line later this month to help pay the bills. Mercredi said government funding would give his organization more options and more stability than this patchwork approach, and that the province should be taking a more active role.
"How is it that a local doughnut shop — Darkside Donuts — is doing more to fund the consumption site than the province of Saskatchewan?" he said.
A local restaurant, Tish Cafe, will also be selling black bean soup in support of PHR.