Lessons from Toronto- We Can Be Better

Over the past few years, I have noticed that the idea of what makes community health or a community health centre comes up frequently when I am thinking or writing.  I have learned in my role, both with my own centres in Winnipeg (Klinic and SERC), and as Co-Chair of the Canadian Association of Community Health Centres (CACHC), that we are very diverse.  In fact, we are so diverse that sometimes we struggle to recognize where our connections are, what brings us together; yet, I also see that whenever I walk into a Community Health Centre, regardless of the city or region, I feel instantly at home, as do the other people that are there.

I spent last week in Toronto meeting with my colleagues on the board of CACHC and attending the conference of the newly named Alliance for Healthier Communities – the voice for community health in Ontario.   I have written about this previously after attending last year  and being overwhelmed by the presence of the Ontario community health sector, particularly in areas like harm reduction.  I also wrote about Lynne Raskin, the Executive Director of South Riverdale Community Health Centre, who I spent time with last week and for whom I am so grateful, as both a colleague on CACHC and simply an amazing human. South Riverdale has been ground zero in advocacy for supervised injection sites, using their voice and that of their community to advocate that we need better supports, resources and drug policies to support people who use drugs.When you walk into South Riverdale CHC you notice the spaciousness.  The reception area allows room for people to move, and they are doing just that.  Some go to reception, some to the second floor to access their primary care, which includes many things we don’t find easily in Winnipeg centres (for example, physiotherapy).  Many head to the harm reduction distribution centre and the newly added supervised injection site right inside the front door.  They may be exchanging needles or getting a clean supply; some were checking if there had been a fresh bread delivery, which they receive regularly.  What I notice is the manner in which people access the site: the way they are greeted, the sense that they are comfortable, that they see this as their place. I am not going to lie; when we reach the rooftop garden, I pretty much turn the colour of the plants with envy.   We talk about all the different programs and intergenerational work happening on the rooftop.  This is exactly what community health looks like to me.  It is diverse, it is changing and adapting to meet needs, it is creative and sometimes it is hard.Lynne takes us to visit the memorial that peers who use drugs helped construct to remember more than two thousand people in Toronto who have lost their lives in the opioid crisis – it continues to grow.  As we walk through the streets of this community, we talk about common challenges, gentrification and changing demographics, homelessness, the role of community health centres, the impacts of opioids and meth in our communities.
What stands out in Toronto? For one, there is a strong municipal presence in supports and crisis management and the city has been an important part of the solutions and coming together.  The province has invested heavily in community health and harm reduction, including the cost of supplies that are distributed and collected province-wide and, of course, establishment of supervised injection sites.I am writing these reflections on my first day back in Winnipeg. I happened to be spending today in a meeting with partners across our West Broadway community, including police, service providers, businesses and residents, all deeply concerned about the growing level of homelessness and drug use in the community.  Though these issues are not only being experienced in West Broadway, it is evident that the last couple of years of significant spikes in activity during the summer months have been challenging for the community to manage. We are desperately in need of outside support.How can we in Winnipeg learn from the trials and successes of other jurisdictions? How do we help create a broader understanding that we are in crisis?  Every human deserves access to basic human needs and when they don’t have it it impacts not only that person, but all of us.I don’t know the answer to these questions but I am confident that we can and must do better.