A man dressed in a black hoodie, hardly suitable for a cold Ottawa night, lay sprawled on the stairs near the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre on Nelson Street.

At first glance, he seemed asleep, but he was unresponsive even after being shaken.

Bruce McConville, who is a volunteer with a new street-level outreach program started by Vanier residents, was on the scene and quickly determined the man may have overdosed. 

McConville administered naloxone to reverse the overdose, while Dave Shymanski, another volunteer with the Good Neighbours Ottawa Outreach and Safety Walks, dialed 911.

“That’s really sad,” McConville said. “Homeless people are easy prey for dealers.”

This incident was another stark reminder of the challenges associated with the opioid crisis in Ottawa. Critics say existing safeguards fail to keep the crisis under control, and communities have been dealing with the consequences. 

John Hickey, another volunteer, pointed out that while the city has grappled with homelessness and drug addiction for a while, the pandemic marked a significant turning point, and there are no signs of the situation improving.

“This is not the same city I grew up in.”

– Dave Massey, lifelong Ottawa resident

“Homelessness, housing, mental health, drug problems, … It was hard for some people to cope, especially with other issues,” Hickey said.

A quickly growing crisis

According to the latest data from Ottawa Public Health, emergency department visits for opioid overdoses from January to July this year totalled 875. That’s higher than the 866 visits in all of 2022.

 “What’s unique about opioids is that the more we use them, the more receptors appear in the brain.”

– Donna Sarrazin, CEO of Recovery Care

To combat some of the challenges associated with the crisis, residents have been engaging in weekly walks under the moniker of Good Neighbours Ottawa. The safety initiative was started by the Vanier Community Association, said Myka Delisle-Spencley, chair of the association’s safety committee. 

“There’s a gap in services,” Delisle-Spencley explained. Good Neighbours Ottawa was created to help. 

Every Tuesday night, volunteers head out from Centre Pauline-Charron in Vanier and follow Montreal Road, occasionally extending the route to the ByWard Market and into Sandy Hill. McConville said the campaign began with a group of concerned Vanier residents, but it has “expanded from Vanier to other areas that have need” in recognition that it’s a “city-wide issue.”

Volunteers provide bottled water and food to people in need. Sometimes, as they did this week, they deal with overdoses and administer naloxone.

A group of people standing on the street and handing out granola bars. Two people sit down on the street and have a conversation with them.
Good Neighbours Ottawa volunteers offer granola bars and water bottles to those in need on Rideau Street during an Oct. 17 safety walk. The safety initiative was launched by the Vanier Community Association. [Photo © BoNing Gao]

Existing services ‘insufficient’

With a higher demand for services, some say Vanier is bearing the weight of the opioid crisis. Out of the 29 addiction-focused services listed on the City of Ottawa’s website, 12 of them are located in and around Vanier. 

For example, along Montreal Road, services provide withdrawal maintenance, needle exchanges and other medical inventions for addiction. 

Two of these services are Recovery Care and Respect Rx, pharmacies that treat substance use disorder, co-located with each other to ensure easy access to clinic resources.

McConville said the pharmacies play a “vital” role.

“Anywhere problems of drug overdose exist, it’s important to have a resource available that can provide antidotes, especially in areas where the problem is prevalent,” McConville said. “And Respect Rx has been providing naloxone kits and medical training courses for us.”

Donna Sarrazin, CEO of Recovery Care, describes how quickly opiate addiction manifests. “What’s unique about opioids is that the more we use them, the more receptors appear in the brain,” said Sarrazin.

She explained people have a natural amount of opioid receptors that help balance their mood, pain and reward responses. The more a person uses opiates recreationally, the harder it is to stop, Sarrazin said.

Street drugs such as fentanyl and carfentanil are potent to the point where pharmaceutical interventions can’t deter withdrawal. Sarrazin said that pharmacies cannot “combat what’s happening on the street” with the tools they have at present, especially because recreational opiate use exponentially increased during the pandemic, Sarrazin said. 

Two women standing on a bridge and looking down.
Good Neighbours Ottawa volunteers say sometimes people in need can be found in hidden corners. Two volunteers on a recent safety walk use flashlights to check if there’s anyone under the Cummings Bridge along Montreal Road. [Photo © BoNing Gao]

‘It’s not OK to just let people suffer’

Despite the work of the pharmacies in Vanier, some residents remain frustrated.

Dave Massey moved into a retirement residence on Montreal Road earlier this year. He said he is upset because violent incidents related to drugs in his neighbourhood occur, as he described, “not constant, but way too often.”

In fact, Massey, who uses a wheelchair, was injured earlier this year after being pushed out of his chair following an altercation with another man. Massey said police released the person he says attacked him without charges. 

“That’s why my [Canadian] flag is upside down on my wheelchair. This is not the same city I grew up in,” he said.

According to McConville, during numerous meetings with the city and Ottawa police, street crime was seen as a consequence of homelessness, drug addiction and mental health issues. The recurring sentiment he says he often hears from police is “there’s nothing we can do.”

Eventually, McConville decided that “rather than being an angry citizen,” he figured he could “get more done with honey than with vinegar.”

 It was these sentiments that prompted Delisle-Spencley to create Good Neighbours Ottawa.

“We’re missing so many services that actually help people,” Delisle-Spencley said. She described the lack of services that prevent developing addiction. “If people want help, we don’t have a place for them. We don’t have room in our recovery programs, in our shelters, in our healthcare systems,” Delisle-Spencley said.

Which is why residents started taking measures into their own hands. 

The Good Neighbours Ottawa initiative has been praised by Rideau-Vanier Coun. Stéphanie Plante and Ottawa-Vanier MPP Lucille Collard as a way to take back the streets and help the community. 

“It’s not OK to just let people suffer, I don’t blame residents for taking up this fight,” Plante said.

‘Society must help’

Meanwhile, back at the scene of the Sandy Hill overdose, volunteers remained stationed on the corner of Nelson and Rideau streets, waiting for paramedics.

Shymanski and McConville agreed it was a “slow night” since the 911 operator asked if they wanted paramedics, firefighters or police. “That never happened before, I didn’t know there were preferences,” Shymanski said. “Usually we get whoever is available at the moment.” 

When the paramedics arrived, the overdose victim had regained consciousness but was unable to communicate. Paramedics administered oxygen. McConville explained the situation to the paramedics before they left with the man.

Incidents like this prompted the volunteers to act, McConville said.

“If the establishment can’t do it, it needs to be resident-led. We want to be a spark that ignites the whole city rather than just one particular area.”

Hickey, who believes in a holistic approach to harm reduction, agreed “society must help,” and the Good Neighbours initiative “is just the first step leading towards a highway,” Hickey said.

Three women smiling at the camera.
From the left: Myka Delisle-Spencley, Rideau-Vanier Coun. Stéphanie Plante and Nathalie Montpetit were at the Centre Pauline-Charron answering questions about harm reduction services for opiate addiction in Vanier. [Photo © Nadia Nikpour-Badr]


Find more information about the Good Neighbours Ottawa Safety Walks sponsored by the Vanier Community Association.

You can request naloxone training courses at Respect Rx Pharmacy’s website. Once the training is complete you can order free naloxone kits.