Who Will Fight for the Yaletown OPS?

Video still courtesy Global News.

On July 19, the City of Vancouver issued an email letter to Vancouver Coastal Health declaring the lease for Thomus Donaghy Overdose Prevention Site (OPS) in Yaletown will not be renewed in 2024 – only three years after it opened. The decision was praised by ABC Councillor Peter Meiszner, who in the weeks prior had adopted the campaign to shut down the OPS as his personal cause célèbre. Vancouver’s public servants were once expected to pay deference to the city’s reputation for harm reduction, even if begrudgingly. Meiszner’s gleeful call to mandate mass death announces the latest chapter in this degenerate state of civic affairs.

To make sense of the City’s unblushing decision to shutter a life-saving service amidst ever-climbing overdose mortality rates, it helps to ask: who benefits? The plot to terminate the Yaletown OPS provides a tidy lesson in latter-day populism, with the political Right repackaging elite interests as so-called ‘common sense’ policy. Meiszner’s selective accommodation to only the most rabid, vengeful, and Twitter-addicted of his “#Yaletown neighbours” paints the persecution of the OPS as a matter of public interest. What is lost in the media furor is how this apparent middle class insurgency was propelled by private lawsuits and bankrolled by developer dollars. 

Between May and June, two separate class action lawsuits targeting the Yaletown OPS for closure were filed to the BC Supreme Court. The plaintiffs include Bruno Wall, president of Wall Financial Corporation, and 1111 Seymour Residences Ltd., a Wall Financial Corporation subsidiary that owns the condo next to the Yaletown OPS. The mega-firm is valued at $622 million at the time of this writing. Wall Corp’s founder-patriarch Peter Wall certainly knows how to make his money work. The captain of industry invited controversy in 2021 when he donated $1 million to the Vancouver Police Department, earmarked to further militarize the department’s patrol of Wall’s real estate assets in the Downtown Eastside.

So little Peter gets his day in the NIMBY spotlight by bravely shutting down a safe injection site. Behind the curtain, Peter the elder reaps the rewards of his diversified investment portfolio – a portfolio that includes the courts, the cops, and City Hall. Despite the certain death and despair that will be unleashed by the impending closure of the Yaletown OPS, there has been no significant resistance to this open attack on human life. 

ABC’s loyal opposition in City Hall has all but admitted defeat. OneCity Councillor Christine Boyle started an online petition to relocate the OPS – a nice thought, but hardly a sign of political potency. Meiszner himself declared his support for securing an alternate location for the site before it is evicted. But there is no indication that City Council is interested in fulfilling this commitment. The ABC majority will predictably deflect responsibility for a possible relocation to the site’s funders and operators. This convenient excuse obscures the significant powers and responsibilities allotted to the City of Vancouver to administer harm reduction services through its control over land use, city-owned real estate, and bylaw enforcement.

More demoralizing is the discernible lack of public response to this injustice, particularly on the part of the aggrieved parties. Vancouver Coastal Health and the site’s operator, RainCity Housing, have so far been unmoved to offer even a mild statement of concern for the deadly consequences the site’s closure will inflict on its clientele. And although the eviction of the OPS is still eight months away, the ‘progressive’ professional set has already packed up for their next contract. 

Despite this grim reality, the end of the Yaletown OPS is not a foregone conclusion. Those who will dare to struggle now know that defiance of the eviction will need to come from below. Gone are the days of harm reduction’s assumed big tent, bipartisan consensus; faced with a renewed sadism from the Right, fairweather friends of the movement have demonstrated their natural tendency to apathy and cowardice. It is yet to be seen how rank-and-file harm reductionists – drug users and their frontline comrades – will organize in this new terrain to defend the lives of their class. What is clear is that no one else will.