MONTREAL — Several parents say they were left with serious doubts after a tense Tuesday evening information session about a supervised drug-use site opening near their children's Montreal elementary school.
Marie-Ève Bourrelle was among them. She emerged from the Victor-Rousselot school gymnasium nearly two hours into a meeting held to answer parents' questions and address concerns about neighbourhood security.
Bourrelle said she is generally in favour of expanding overdose prevention services, just not so close to a school. The stakes, she suggested, are now high for local officials and the organization behind the new centre, Maison Benoît Labre, to follow through on hopes for a harmonious integration in the surrounding community.
"If the security is not done like they say, I'm going to refuse to let my child go to school," Bourrelle vowed.
Maison Benoît Labre is a non-profit that serves unhoused people. Its facility under construction in the St-Henri neighbourhood in southwestern Montreal will have 36 studio apartments for people experiencing homelessness and living with addiction or mental health issues.
There will be an overdose prevention centre on the first floor, where people who use drugs can bring their own substances to consume under staff supervision. It would be the first such centre in Montreal to allow drug inhalation in addition to other modes of consumption. The building is scheduled to open this fall, though its plans for supervised drug use are still under review by federal regulators.
The site is less than 100 metres from Victor-Rousselot elementary school. Several students' parents have raised concerns about the proximity of hard drugs, such as fentanyl, to their children, as well as the potential impact on the safety of the small public park and playground that sits between the school and the Maison Benoît Labre site.
The Tuesday evening information session was limited to the parents of schoolchildren, school administrators, health officials and representatives from the borough, local police and Maison Benoît Labre. Members of the media and other St-Henri residents were not allowed to attend.
A crowd of about 50 people gathered outside the school as the meeting began. Many of them said they showed up in an attempt to learn more about the supervised drug-use project and share thoughts with neighbours. Others protested the project, holding signs that depicted bloody syringes above the words, "no crack, fentanyl and crystal meth just a few feet from our children." Emotions were running high as many members of the crowd engaged in debate.
Sarah Neveu, mother of two Victor-Rousselot students, described a similar scene inside, with parents and officials locked in disagreement about the perceived dangers of a safe drug-use site.
"It's extremely frustrating," Neveu said as she left the school to take a break from the information session. "We're very disappointed with the meeting." Neveu and other parents said they worry about the presence of drug users near the school, and that they wished officials had consulted them about the project earlier.
Maison Benoît Labre's executive director, Andréane Desilets, has said it strived to raise awareness of the new residence and overdose prevention centre in St-Henri. A neighbourhood cleaning brigade and full-time employee dedicated to school-zone security are among the measures she has said the non-profit will deploy to keep the area around the school safe.
In an emailed statement Wednesday, Desilets said the Maison Benoît Labre administration understands parents' anxieties and plans to hold further meetings with members of the community to address their worries.
The Quebec government is also acknowledging concerns about the centre.
"A supervised inhalation centre is an important service for harm reduction, but it's imperative that there be social acceptability in the neighbourhood," the office of Lionel Carmant, Quebec minister responsible for social services, said in a statement. "We can't impose a (supervised inhalation centre) in a neighbourhood so close to a school."
Jean Ouimet, a school board official who attended the meeting, said the city also shared plans to install additional fencing around Victor-Rousselot, while police are set to assign four more officers to patrol the area on foot.
Ouimet walked away from the meeting largely encouraged by what he heard. In an interview Wednesday, he said public school administrators were also looking out for students' safety at the meeting and "got a lot of information ... which reassured us."
Some of the residents present at Victor-Rousselot Tuesday supported the supervised drug-use facility.
"I think it's really important that we understand that this kind of project is going to increase security in the neighbourhood, not the other way around," Anick Desrosiers said. She pointed to the lack of services in the city for unhoused people with addiction issues and to their continuing presence in outdoor public spaces and alleys. Supervised drug-use sites offer a safe, indoor alternative, she said.
"I understand that parents are here because they're worried, that we don't necessarily want our children to be witnesses to (drug) consumption, to homelessness," she said. "Yet the children of the St-Henri neighbourhood are already witnesses to all this."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 20, 2023.
Thomas MacDonald, The Canadian Press