Cobourg encampment faces community scrutiny, from the strain on emergency resources to cozy ties between advocates and local officials

The strain on emergency resources escalates as the encampment at the former Brookside Youth Detention Centre property prompts community pushback against advocates like Moms Stop The Harms and Greenwood Coalition, while concerns persist regarding potential conflicts of interest and cozy relationships among advocates and local officials that complicate efforts to address the crisis.

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As British Columbia walks back its hard drug decriminalization pilot, it’s evident the ideologies advocating for harm reduction and safer drug supply aren’t as effective as claimed. The resulting chaos and public disorder in Canadian cities and towns as a result of these initiatives has led to significant increases in crime, open-air drug use and homelessness in recent years.

In Cobourg, Ont., the burgeoning encampment at the former Brookside Youth Detention Centre property has put a major strain on emergency resources — from fire to police to paramedics. The local Cobourg police force detailed five pages of calls to the site in the first three months it took up strategic residence on provincial lands.

As of last year, violent crime was up over 41% in the area. But the community has started pushing back — getting more involved in council delegations and keeping eyes on the local political and advocacy happenings.

The upper-tier municipality, Northumberland County, meanwhile, has purchased an old retirement residence and given it to the Canadian charity called Transition House to deliver consolidated low-barrier shelter efforts — in the middle of the downtown core, in a family neighbourhood, blocks away from an elementary school, and on the main route into the once sought after tourist destination, the iconic Cobourg beach which led to the city being nicknamed  “Ontario’s Feel Good Town.” 

Advocates, including the newly established Cobourg chapter of the non-profit organization Moms Stop the Harms (MSTH) led by Missy (Melissa) McLean and local charity Greenwood Coalition, face criticism for enabling addiction over treatment, recovery and societal reintegration.

This came a head when Cobourg Mayor Lucas Cleveland put forward a motion to amend municipal funding allocations to remove both Greenwood Coalition and MSTH from receiving any grants in any form.

Deputy Mayor Nicole Beatty and councillors Adam Bureau, Aaron Burchat and Randy Barber ultimately defeated that motion.

Burchat has a daughter who embedded herself into the encampment, even dating a former resident, and councillor Barber was aloof to the shots fired at the encampment when it first took up space on the Cobourg west beach last year.

The woman who fundraises on GoFundMe for winterized encampment tents, Jenni Frenke, can be seen pictured with Deputy Mayor Beatty at her wedding with Greenwood CEO David Sheffield.

Sheffield, encampment resident Chance Brown, his girlfriend and councillor’s daughter London Burchat, Sheffield’s daughter and MSTH Cobourg chapter leader McLean are all a cozy group of advocates — an intermingling of drug facilitating with tones of cronyism, favouritism and conflicts of interest.

At last month's council meeting, McLean — who advocates for defunding, arguably the police, and drug decriminalization — was seeking an apology from Mayor Cleveland for his defunding efforts (which never came).

McLean explained how she became involved in the organization, where she then brought the ideology of harm reduction and purported safer supply of highly addictive drugs, the decriminalization of street drugs, and initiatives like safe injection sites and overdose prevention sites into town.

She mentions a declaration that occurred on December 14, 2020, where Cobourg council unanimously voted to adopt a Mom’s Stop the Harms municipal resolution on the overdose crisis.

The resolution stated there was an urgent need for action on the opioid crisis, the largest public health emergency of our lifetime! It urged the government of Canada to engage with affected communities and collaborate with provinces to develop a comprehensive overdose action plan aimed at reducing fatalities and stigma. The resolution was forwarded to relevant stakeholders including the Minister of Health, Health Canada, Moms Stop the Harms and local MP Phillip Lawrence.

McLean explains that MSTH was founded by three mothers who lost their children to drug overdoses. Driven by intense grief and subsequent mental health woes of losing a child, they have formulated a delusional plan to somehow create safe drug use for other mentally unwell people.

It's a vicious cycle and strangely, these grieving mothers started this work in 2016 — the same year that Canada’s Drug and Substance Strategy (CDSS) was announced. A program that has not been able to provide any tangible improvements to the opioid crisis despite over $1 billion in funds funnelled into it.

How has Cobourg fared since the unanimous passing of the municipal resolution in December 2020, initiated by then-councillor Nicole Beatty and seconded by councillor Bureau, now serving his second term, who owns a small pawn shop on the increasingly unsafe and dishevelled downtown main street of Cobourg?

According to Public Health Ontario’s datasets, the Haliburton Kawartha Pineridge district health unit saw a spike in overdoses and deaths in the year that followed — in 2020 there were 214 emergency department visits, 39 hospitalizations and 37 deaths.

In 2021, there was a spike in opioid-related harms with 308 emergency department visits, 35 hospitalizations and 50 deaths. That number came closer to 2020 levels in 2022 — with 195 emergency department visits, 39 hospitalizations, and 35 deaths. There’s been no marked improvement in the two years since its inception and a stark increase in crime and chaos.

McLean is also responsible for bringing an unsanctioned, i.e. illegal, overdose prevention site through a “Tweak Easy” initiative in the spring of 2023 — something she said was “an act of resistance that will challenge local politicians, police, and opposed citizens.”

They welcome minors to their tweaking party.

One Cobourg resident even went so far as to accuse the local “radically inclusive advocacy groups” and other “well-known members” to “directly and indirectly support, grow and enable this encampment and make excuses for the ensuing behaviour.”

But how can the town separate from these well-known members and advocacy groups when the intertwined political mingling runs deep, and elections are two years out?

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