“I want interventions that will make the community safe and that will work.”Carol Fenton
Dr. Carol Fenton no longer answers her cell phone when it rings — which is a problem for a busy medical health officer at the Interior Health Authority. The verbal abuse that’s inevitably on the other end of the line from random strangers isn’t worth it.
“It’s not something I ever thought I’d have to deal with when I was training for this speciality,” Fenton said in an interview. “It’s a shock to the system for sure.”
Fenton has been deluged by harassment since she publicly criticized Kamloops council’s plan to pass a bylaw that would ban open drug use in public spaces, such as city parks and beaches.
Her position is one shared by all of B.C.’s medical health officers: Municipalities should wait at least six months to examine the impact of the province’s new drug decriminalization pilot project, and civic leaders should proceed carefully to avoid increasing stigma on drug use that could force more people to use substances alone, where they are at a greater risk of a fatal overdose due to the toxic drug supply.
Hot-topic community debate
Fenton has landed in the centre of an emotional and raging hot-topic community debate, one tied up in rising public frustration over the complex and often-intertwined issues of drug use, addictions, crime, vandalism, the criminal justice system, involuntary care and mental health.
It’s a debate playing out in communities across the province, from Campbell River to Dawson Creek, as people wonder whether B.C. making personal possession of up to 2.5 grams of illicit drugs legal in late January has contributed to a decrease in public safety.
“My understanding is there are a lot of people very distressed in Kamloops at the current situation, there’s a lot of tension, a lot of people reporting violence and feeling unsafe, and a lot of that is legitimate,” Fenton said.
“I was just lending my expertise and saying let’s look at the factors that have caused this situation and address those, because these things did not arise when decriminalization was passed in January. “Just putting criminalization back in place is not going to fix these things.”
Her comments, including a tense social media exchange with Kamloops Coun. Bill Sarai, became political fodder during a time of intense emotional debate.
“People are saying things like, ‘How dare you say that it’s acceptable for children to play with crack pipes,’” Fenton said of the calls and emails. “I’m like, in what universe would I ever have said that?
“Someone was demanding I explain that her husband had been assaulted and how dare I allow that to continue. Assault continues to be illegal. I’m not saying that that’s okay.”
“I want interventions that will make the community safe and that will work,” she added.
“Many of the councillors, even those who vote for the bylaw, admit it’s unenforceable.”
Sarai is on his second term on council, after a 31-year career as a letter carrier at Canada Post. Fenton is 35, and three years into her job at Interior Health. Perhaps unsurprisingly, their disagreement was not solved on Twitter.
“Dr. Fenton says we don’t want to push them underground so they use alone and OD — I 100 per cent agree with that,” said Sarai.
“But you also can’t leave them in a business-person’s doorway and expect the business person to be the first responder and 911 caller.”
‘Community is fed up’
Sarai said the system is placing too much emphasis on safe consumption, and not enough on addictions treatment and recovery. Local politicians feel Interior Health has failed to increase the spaces for people to safely use, and so they are turning to public places.
“The bottom line is the community is fed up with Interior Health on a wide range of issues, this being the latest,” said Peter Milobar, the MLA for Kamloops-North Thompson.
“The public is fed up with Interior Health frankly patting us on the head in a very paternalistic way and saying they know best.”
The Opposition BC United have further muddied the debate by portraying Interior Health and Dr. Fenton as executing the political agenda of the BC NDP government, which United MLAs say is a soft on crime approach that allows public disorder to run rampant.
Milobar makes no apologies for that portrayal. But he said Fenton shouldn’t be attacked personally.
“The threats and all of that absolutely should not be happening,” he said. “And I feel bad for Dr. Fenton that that’s happening.”
Kamloops Mayor Reid Hamer-Jackson supported the city motion to ask staff to develop a bylaw banning open drug use in city parks. But as the civility of the debate worsened, he began to reconsider his position. Then he did something relatively novel.
‘We’ve got to work together’
“I picked up the phone and called her,” Hamer-Jackson said of Fenton. Then he met with Premier David Eby, who happened to be in Kamloops for an NDP fundraiser last weekend.
Both conversations were productive and useful, he said. “I think we’ve got to work together a little more.”
Kamloops would like to see the B.C. government make a blanket ban on public drug use in municipal parks and playgrounds. But Hamer-Jackson also acknowledges the city needs to start enforcing its own bylaws in existing areas of public alcohol consumption and smoking before it seeks to also create similar bylaws on drug use.
“I’m to blame also because I don’t think we put enough thought into it,” he said of the motion on public drug use. “Because, it’s not like we can implement it. We need to start enforcing what we’ve got already, and then start working with government and moving further.”
Hamer-Jackson is also lobbying Interior Health and Victoria to open up safe consumption spaces in existing supportive housing, to give people who might want to use in public places another safe option.
“Nobody, including Interior Health, they don’t want to see kids picking up needles in playgrounds and water parks,” he said. “I don’t think anybody does.”
Debate and harassment rage on
But in the meantime, the debate over drug use and crime rages on in the community. As does the harassment.
Fenton said she’s coping by being liberal with the block button on Twitter, and drawing upon coping skills she learned during the first time she faced a public harassment campaign — during the COVID-19 pandemic when she was the face of the region’s immunization efforts.
Fenton said she also talked to Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry recently about the experience, after Henry found herself under attack by vaccine opponents and COVID deniers during the pandemic.
“It’s not something I ever thought I’d have to deal with when I was training for this speciality,” said Fenton.
“I’m taking a little bit of a break from Twitter, at least being so vocal. But I’m not willing to silence myself because some people are inappropriate. That would be unfair.
“That could change if it gets to the point I feel unsafe doing it, then I will change strategies. But I think there’s value in what I do. Which is why I do it.”