December 8, 2023

Ministry of Health installs supervisor, begins comprehensive review of community health clinic

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The Ford government is relieving the board of directors and senior management at the South Riverdale Community Health Centre of their duties following a critical incident review.

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The province is installing a supervisor to oversee all decisions at the Centre and is launching a further investigation into how the centre operates.

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The board is effectively defunct at this point and CEO Jason Altenberg, while not fired, won’t have any decision-making powers over the drug consumption site for the time being. Instead, Jill Campbell, who formerly held the position of vice-president of Clinical Services and chief nursing officer at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, will be in charge.

In addition, the province has asked Unity Health, the parent organization of St. Michael’s Hospital, “to complete a comprehensive, third-party review of the CTS.” The third-party review will examine the operations of the centre and the suitability of the location for a drug consumption and treatment site.

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Police arrest two more people in the July 7 shooting including someone who worked at the safe-injection site.
Innocent bystander Karolina Huebner-Makurat was killed in a shooting in Leslieville on July 7, 2023. Photo by Karolina Heubner-Makurat /Facebook

The critical incident review that led to these changes was ordered by Premier Doug Ford after the deadly July 7 shooting of Karolina Huebner-Makura outside of the centre

The 44 year-old wife and mother of two young children was shot and killed as she walked along the sidewalk in the middle of the day to pick up lunch near the corner of Queen St. E. and Carlaw Ave. Gunfire erupted in the park across the street next to the SRCHC and Karolina was hit by one of the bullets while those involved in the shooting fled.

Several neighbours and eyewitnesses to the shooting were quick to blame the shooting on the drug programs at the centre and the dealers it attracted.

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The SRCHC has been in operation for decades, but since 2017 has also been home to a so-called safe consumption site for drug users. Recently, they also began offering a so-called safer supply program where people addicted to opioids are given pharmaceutical grade pills to consume rather than street drugs.

The centre and its supporters denied any claims there was a connection between their programs and the shooting. So far, two men, and one woman, an SRCHC employee, have been arrested and charged in connection with the shooting.

Khalila Zara Mohammed, 23 of Pickering, was charged in August as an accessory after the fact with police believing she helped one or more of the men involved in the shooting escape. Mohammed was a worker in the centre’s harm reduction program.

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Area residents have complained for years about discarded needles and other drug paraphernalia being found in the streets and parks surrounding the site and the increase in crime. Those complaints were ignored by the centre itself, Toronto Public Health and the Ontario Ministry of Health until the tragic shooting brought this all into the spotlight.

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Even then, supporters of the centre have continued to deny any connection to the shooting or the increase in crime and dismiss concerns as attempts to diminish the plight of drug users.

Some of the concerns raised included the way the centre was operated and whether they were adhering to provincial rules. One of the provincial regulations for consumption sites is that they must offer treatment, something the SRCHC did not appear to do, dismissing treatment as judgmental.

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“It is a philosophy about being simply respectful of and to people who use drugs. No judgement, no expectations and no desire for people to stop using drugs,” the centre has proudly stated on its website, social media channels and printed materials.

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That philosophy was described as dangerous by addictions specialist Dr. Sharon Koivu in an interview with the Toronto Sun earlier this year.

“With this policy, South Riverdale Community Health Centre is not working to improve lives,” Dr. Koivu said. “They are promoting a dependency on a service that should be meant to help them.”

In a letter sent to community members by Catherine Zahn, the province’s deputy minister of health and Dr. Kieran Moore the chief medical officer, there is a promise for a full community outreach and input in the coming weeks.

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