The organization appears to offer addicts a needed route to recovery, while preserving farmland. What’s the hold up?
RYAN COLWELL WAS ONCE ON THE FAST TRACK TO DEATH. Addicted to heroin and fentanyl, the former Surrey resident found himself living on the streets of Victoria at the age of 24, bouncing from shelter to shelter for a place to lay his head. Every day was the same routine—search for more drugs and money, which he’d steal and rob from people in order to get his next fix.
“It’s pretty sad,” said the soft-spoken Colwell, sitting on a pile of hay bales at Central Saanich’s Woodwynn Farms. “You do whatever you have to do. You just want to be blissful.”
Eventually, friends and family lost their patience, and cut ties with Colwell’s drug-fuelled life. He started seeking fentanyl to get high, even though he knew the dangers of using the deadly and highly-addictive opioid that’s 100 times more potent than morphine and 20 times more potent than OxyContin. Even one dose can be fatal.
So far this year (October, 2017), 1,013 people have died of suspected illicit drug overdoses in BC compared to 547 deaths at the same time last year. Fentanyl was detected in more than 80 percent of the deaths—an increase of 151 percent over the same period in 2016.
Colwell never overdosed on fentanyl, but has seen plenty of people who have. He just never thought it would happen to him.
“You see people around you die, but you think that you’re not going to die because ‘I don’t do as much’ or ‘I don’t shoot it with a needle,’” said Colwell, who’s watched many acquaintances receive multiple injections of naloxone—a prescription medicine that blocks the effects of opioids and reverses an overdose. “It’s scary, but you’re mostly scared for that person. You think they’re going to die.”
Battling his addiction since the age of 18, following the death of his father, Colwell has been in and out of numerous treatment facilities, but none of the tools he learned from them ever stuck long- term. Last January, sick of life on the street, he wound up living at Woodwynn Farms, waking up every day at 5 a.m., slinging hay bales to feed the livestock, and whatever else is required among the lengthy list of daily chores.
The 193-acre organic farm has been operating for eight years now, providing those struggling with addictions, homelessness or mental health challenges with a therapeutic community that gives them the tools needed to integrate back into society. Those who come to the farm are mainly men, ranging in age from 19 to 60, and stay for an average of 18 months.
Although the facility has attracted a large crew of volunteers, and thousands of donors, service clubs and church groups to help out, it’s still trying to get fully off the ground, due to an eight-year battle between the Creating Homefulness Society (Woodwynn’s operator) and municipal authorities over the housing and operations of the farm.
Woodwynn Farms' Richard Leblanc (Photo by Pamela Roth)
RICHARD LEBLANC, WOODWYNN’S FOUNDER and executive director, worked as a contractor for much of his career, but couldn’t help notice that Victoria’s homeless problem was spiraling out of control. Feeling like there had to be a better solution, he stumbled upon a free therapeutic community in Italy called San Patrignano, which has become the largest therapeutic work community in the world with 1,800 participants at a time. In 30 years, San Patrignano has helped more than 20,000 people. Seventy percent of them are still drug-free years later.
“Everybody has something meaningful and purposeful to do here every day,” said Leblanc about Woodwynn. “Over and over again you’re watching people that might die. You help them out and they move on with their life.”
Each day begins with a morning yoga session at 5:45 a.m., followed by a healthy breakfast from food grown on the farm, then a group meeting. The rest of the day is spent tending to the daily duties of running a farm that has 400 livestock consisting of chickens, cows and pigs; food crops (60 different fruits and vegetables); and a woodworking shop that’s helped spruce up the property immensely.
The goods created there, which range from salad dressings, jams, pickled zucchini, soaps and herbal teas to meat and produce, are sold in a market at the farm, providing what Leblanc calls an “incredible showcase” of what those who work there can do.
But it’s only scratching the surface of the farm’s potential. Most of the property is currently used to grow hay, noted Leblanc, who wants to use more of those hay fields for even more food crops and livestock, with a small portion devoted to housing farm workers.
A dozen donated recreational vehicles for housing are parked in a meadow on the farm, but only eight people can be housed on the property at a time, due to Central Saanich zoning restrictions. In mid-September, four people were living at the farm, but the average is closer to eight.
Leblanc’s vision is to house 96 people at a time, who would arrive through a gradual process in order to build the necessary staff and management required. First they detox for seven to nine days at Royal Jubilee Hospital, and then go to Woodwynn, as long as they’re willing to commit to the farm’s long-term abstinence-based program for a minimum of 90 days.
Leblanc has worked with an architect to design a cluster of eight small dorm buildings (housing up to 15 each), along with a communal dining room that will sit on 1.5 acres (.08 percent) of the large site so it wouldn’t detract from the amount of land available for farming. But first he needs a zoning permit from the municipality in order to proceed.
Despite the society’s commitment to farming, some people and politicians are still firmly opposed to Woodwynn. Central Saanich council has refused to amend bylaws to permit the facilities necessary to house the labour force needed to grow more produce, and has even taken the matter to BC Supreme Court. Effort is now being made to settle the matter out of court.
Most recently, council requested that the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) review the Society’s application for temporary housing for up to 40 farm workers, to ensure it is consistent with uses allowed on the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR). The matter remains under review by the committee, with no timeline set for the decision. And the final outcome still lies in the hands of council, which rejected the society’s 2012 application to the ALC to spot-rezone a couple of acres for housing.
CENTRAL SAANICH MAYOR RYAN WINDSOR has been watching the matter unfold ever since he was elected to council in 2013. He understands the concerns around the opioid crisis, but noted the issue at Woodwynn simply revolves around land use.
According to Windsor, the municipality has communicated many times that farming is the primary purpose of that land, and it’s what he believes it should be used for as well. Windsor acknowledges the Society’s plans to increase farming on the Woodwynn property, but noted the problem still lies with the number of people the organization wants to house. Regardless of what the ALC recommends, he suspects the application will likely lead to a public consultation process. When that could happen is anybody’s guess.
“Agricultural land has a very specific use and we want to see it used for productive farming. It wasn’t reserved for housing or other uses,” said Windsor, noting it’s up to Woodwynn to gather support from the community—something that will be seen when the matter proceeds to public consultation.“It’s important when you have a significant piece of land like this that farming remains the primary use and a couple of acres for housing and therapeutic activities that maybe are beyond farming, I don’t think are in the spirit of the agricultural land use. I think most of my council feels that way too.”
Comprising just five percent of BC’s total land base, the ALR is a provincial land use zone where agriculture is the priority use, but regulations do not require the farmland to be farmed. ALR regulations also stipulate any housing “must be necessary for farm use,” but what’s seen as “necessary” is influenced by what the local authority advises.
About 60 percent of the land base in Central Saanich is designated as farmland. But how much of that is actually farmed? Central Saanich’s CAO told Focus they do not track such usage, but a 2011 report by the Agricultural Area Plan Steering Committee District of Central Saanich noted that “The farmland base used for crops, other than tame hay, represented less than 30 percent of the total farm area. About 21 percent of the farms did not have any land in crops and were kept in tame seeded pasture, natural pasture, woodlands and wetlands.” Over half of the cropped area, it stated, “is in tame hay grown for the local livestock and equine feed market.”
The 2011 report spelled out the pressures leading to a “deteriorating” use of farmland, and made a number of recommendations. Key among them was reducing non-agricultural demand for farmland by limiting the size of housing through bylaw amendment and other disincentives to non-farm use. Central Saanich has never done that, though maximum heights of structures on agricultural land are specified.
Though focused on the Lower Mainland, a May 2017 Postmedia investigation explains why such disincentives are important as farmland crucial to BC’s future food needs is “increasingly falling into the hands of speculators and builders of luxury property.” Stories of huge houses—often 12,000-square-feet-and-up—abound on farmland in the Richmond area. With minimal effort, such investors (showing $2500 in farm revenue) claim major (often 50 percent) tax breaks, which are prompting politicians to look for ways to crack down on the trend of farmland being used for trophy estates.
Meanwhile, Leblanc feels Woodwynn has already bucked the trend: Since the Creating Homefulness Society took over Woodwynn’s 193 acres, more food crops are coming off its land than in previous decades.
THIS YEAR THE PROVINCE IS ON PACE to lose more than 1,500 people to drug overdoses, compared with an average of about 200 from 2000 to 2010. Last year there were more than 900 overdose deaths, with fentanyl at the root of the epidemic.
Victoria is among the three cities in BC experiencing the highest number of illicit drug overdoses this year, with 65 deaths recorded so far this year. A supervised injection site, to be located on Pandora Avenue next to Our Place, was recently given the green light from Health Canada, but won’t begin services until the spring or summer of 2018. Four overdose prevention sites have been set up in the meantime and continue to be heavily used, but they don’t provide any treatment.
Victoria police started noticing fentanyl creep into the city’s drug culture in 2012, and now officers see it on a daily basis. Staff Sargeant Conor King said the drug seems to be replacing heroin as the opioid that’s available on the street due to its powerful, euphoric affect that users are becoming accustomed to. Drug dealers are also seeing there are profits to be made, since fentanyl is relatively easy to procure.
One of the most concerning things for King is that the drug is now being detected in samples of other drugs, such as cocaine and methamphetamine, but the user is likely unaware it’s there.
In response to the crisis—King believes it will only get worse—police are now targeting dealers selling the deadly drug. Those who go through the court system are also getting slapped with tougher sentences. A recent investigation by Vancouver police resulted in a 14-year prison sentence for trafficking fentanyl.
“Every two to three weeks we are laying new charges in our ongoing fentanyl operations plan, so it’s a regular occurrence. We have a good basis of knowledge for who the traffickers are on the South Island,” said King. “Where we get frustrated is that we will arrest one trafficker and incarcerate them, but another trafficker will fill the void. Where we feel there is some light at the end of the tunnel is there has been some very stiff sentences handed out in BC.”
As police and paramedics continue the fight against fentanyl on the front lines, addicts keen on transforming their lives are still left with few options. A handful of detox facilities exist in the capital region, but they only last for a week or so. The only long-term recovery programs are privately run and can cost thousands of dollars, putting them out of reach for those eking out an existence on city streets.
Seeing a need for more solutions, Our Place Society is proposing to set up a long-term, live-in, locked-down treatment centre for addiction and chronic homelessness at the former youth custody centre in View Royal. The facility is owned by BC Housing and is currently being used as temporary housing for the homeless, but it’s slated to shut down at the end of the year.
According to Our Place spokesperson Grant McKenzie, the society plans to model the proposed centre after the same therapeutic community program in Italy as Woodwynn does, housing up to 50 men at a time for a minimum of 12 months and up to two years. The facility already has a gymnasium, a woodworking shop and an art room, which could allow for some social enterprise. The days will be busy, with various programs taking place to change criminal thinking and street mentality so people have a higher chance of success. Some participants could also be bussed to Woodwynn to work on the farm during the day.
The plan is to have the facility up and running by early 2018, but the matter has yet to go to View Royal’s council for rezoning. So far McKenzie said that council has been supportive about the proposal, along with the provincial government, which would provide funding for operations during the first seven years.
DESPITE THE HURDLES HE CONTINUES TO FACE, Leblanc feels a facility like Woodwynn is needed more than ever, as the ballooning homeless and opioid crises continue to show no sign of slowing any time soon. Every day he receives calls from people in despair about the risk of losing their loved one. He’d like to help, but continues to be challenged with the number of people Woodwynn can accommodate, due to government restrictions.
Leblanc received pushback from some neighbours at the get-go, even though police have only been called to the property twice to deal with two minor incidents involving program participants over its eight years. But he feels like he’s gaining support, noting some key people at the provincial level are doing their best to make things happen.
“It’s frustrating. The doors should be flying open. People should be tripping all over themselves to rewrite zoning, to rewrite bylaws and [issue] permits to make the obvious rational decision of helping us in any way possible to bring more people here,” said Leblanc, noting the services are free, depending on an individual’s financial situation.
“We have a solution to an enormous public health crisis and we are not being allowed to even give it a try.”
Current Woodwynn worker/resident Ryan Colwell admits life on the farm, with its structured routines and hard physical labour, hasn’t been easy. But after watching many of his acquaintances overdose and die from fentanyl, he knows staying at Woodwynn is necessary if he wants to save his life.
“Conquering any addiction is hard work,” said Colwell, who’s not sure he would have been ready for it a couple of years ago. He understands that “there is no magic pill, no special fix. You have to find a different way to cope and to live.” Now, after nine months at Woodwynn, he feels he has never been in as good shape physically, emotionally or mentally, though he said he still has a lot of soul-searching to do. “There’s a lot of solidarity, peacefulness, just being in the moment and being okay with that. It’s always been go-go-go, excitement and chaos for me. You have to be super-willing to change and put in the work.” Woodwynn is giving him the space, time and training needed to do just that.
A journalist since 2003, Pamela has spent the bulk of her career covering court and crime for various newspapers in western Canada, including five years at the Edmonton Sun. An avid traveller, Pamela also specializes in travel writing and recently published a true crime book called Deadmonton.
On November 9, 2018, Woodwynn Farm’s application to house up to 40 worker/rehabilitation participants on its 193-acre property was denied by the Agricultural Land Commission.
The Commission’s executive committee, led by Frank Leonard, stated: “Based on the current and proposed agricultural activity…the Executive Committee finds that the level of agricultural production, both current and proposed, is insufficient to justify the placement of 40 farm worker accommodations. Furthermore, the Executive Committee finds that the addition of 40 farm worker accommodations would increase the residential footprint and non-farm based infrastructure on prime agricultural land that is currently in production.” It also noted that “the Proposal could be located on lands outside of the ALR.”
As noted in Pamela Roth’s Focus article, Woodwynn’s proposal for housing only involved 1.5 acres of the 193-acre property. A prime purpose of the Creating Homefulness Society is to offer therapeutic rehabilitation to people recovering from addictions and homelessness—and it does this by engaging them in farming the land.
In a press release after the ruling, Richard Leblanc stated: “As the founder of this project, I cannot quite articulate my oh-so-deep level of disappointment. While our Board of Directors and our core funders are somewhat at their wits end, my own resolve is only temporarily shaken. Daily, our phones ring and our email inboxes fill with desperate requests for help.” He referred to the latest record-breaking number of overdoses in BC: 1,100 as of the end of September for 2017.
It seems worth noting that if the Creating Homefulness Society gave up their fight to provide a sorely needed rehabilitation program and sold the Woodwynn property, the ALC would be powerless to stop a new buyer from completely ignoring all the farming (and rehabilitative) potential of the land and merely using it as a trophy estate. This has happened to many properties in the Agricultural Land Reserve.