BIA Chair Rob Hamilton responds to outcry over comments surrounding supervised consumption site

"He has a pretty big platform as a leader in the community so comments like that can carry far and wide."

A former Barrie mayor-turned business association chairperson has issued a statement after catching heat for comments made surrounding a supervised consumption site in the city.

Rob Hamilton, chair of the Downtown Barrie Business Association (BIA), can be heard referring to those in the downtown core who would make use of a proposed supervised consumption site (SCS) as “not a productive, contributing citizen” during a September 2020 board meeting, according to a video obtained by the CBC and posted below.

The comments were made after a fellow board member stated off-camera that everyone who lives downtown is a worthy citizen of Barrie. “That’s just not true,” interrupted Hamilton, “they’re not a productive, contributing citizen. Are they worthy? Yes.” Hamilton was further interrupted by the board member who added: “As a human, they’re worthy and we don’t want to see them die.”

“My remarks at the BIA meeting were inappropriate, and for that, I apologize,” said Hamilton in a statement obtained by Barrie 360 Friday evening. “My remarks were also not reflective of the BIA’s position nor helpful to what needs to be a collaborative and inclusive discussion around a goal that we all share – that is providing the right services in the best location for all, including those with addictions, the health care providers, the residents and the businesses of Barrie.”

“He has a pretty big platform as a leader in the community,” downtown Councillor Keenan Aylwin told Barrie 360 in response to Hamilton’s remarks during the meeting. “So, comments like that can carry far and wide and I think we have an obligation to speak out on that sort of dehumanizing language.”

“I think the majority of people who live in this city, who live in the downtown, the business owners, and city council, frankly, believe that downtown is for everyone,” he added.

The video surfaced amid the hotly debated topic of where in the city a supervised consumption site could be located. Organizations including the Gilbert Centre, Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), and Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit (SMDHU) have been working on a proposal to have such a site for several years. The group has stated it is preferred that it be in the downtown area due to its proximity to not only those who may make use of it but also to other services that they may require.

The group proposed to use the CMHA’s facility at 90 Mulcaster Street in the summer of 2019, but that was eventually shot down by city council. The group was instructed to find new sites and in September of 2020, proposed two for consideration under a fresh SCS application: one at 110 Dunlop Street, the other at 31 Toronto Street. However, the search for potential sites continues, with no location thus far receiving the green light.

Minutes from that September 22 meeting show the Barrie BIA passed a motion that reads “The Downtown Barrie Business Association does not support the existence of a safe consumption/injection site (SCS/SIS) within a one (1) kilometer radius of the current BIA boundary,” by a vote of 6-2 with four members absent.

“The Downtown Barrie BIA understands the impact the opioid crisis is having on our city. We have seen the data and we know our members witness related issues firsthand daily. The opioid issue affects those with addictions, as well as, our community’s first responders, business owners, and residents,” said BIA Executive Director Kelly McKenna in an email to Barrie 360. “To be clear, the Downtown Barrie BIA is not delaying or opposing an SCS in our city. This process has been ongoing for some time and, in fact, we have previously supported a proposed SCS location that was ultimately rejected following further community consultation.”

Aylwin says not only do health experts indicate the city needs an SCS to help combat the well-documented opioid abuse issue in the region but that it must be downtown. “They (supervised consumption sites) can actually help to mitigate some of the concerns that are already existing in the downtown. Look, I’m the first to admit our downtown does have some issues that need to be addressed. But we need to act in concert with the evidence and compassionately in order to solve those issues. And that includes listening to the public health experts.”

Mayor Jeff Lehman says all this might be for nought. He said an SCS location must first receive an endorsement from city council following extensive public consultation, and that’s just one hurdle. “If we do, they will submit the application to the province, and then we have to wait to see whether the province endorses it,” Lehman told Barrie 360. “One of the ironies about this situation is we don’t know whether the province of Ontario will approve the site or not. But council will certainly be asked to endorse the application.”

“A lot of people think this is a City of Barrie project,” added Lehman. “It is led by the Health Unit, but they’re collaborating with three other organizations, specifically CMHA. And those organizations are health organizations. And I think one of the big misconceptions over the last year has been that that this is something other than a health facility. That’s what it is. It’s a health facility. And it is about trying to keep people from overdosing so that they can receive other services.”

“As Chair of the Downtown Barrie BIA Board of Directors and as a business owner in the downtown core for 46 years, I recognize there is an opioid crisis in our city and that a solution to address that issue is needed,” continued Hamilton in his emailed statement. “I also believe on an issue that impacts so many, it’s important that all views are taken into account – regardless of one’s position on the location of an SCS.”

Work on identifying proposed sites continues, while Mayor Lehman says he expects the issue to come before council by March. More information about the status of the application can be found on the SMDHU’s website.