Harper government moves to block supervised injection services for drug users in Canada

Today, the House of Commons passed Bill C-2, the Respect for Communities Act. Pretty title, but like so much Conservative legislation, the meaning of the title, like the bill, is cruelly ironic.

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What the Respect for Communities Act does is effectively block the establishment of new supervised injection facilities like Insite. The bill could make it much harder for Insite to stay open, and it effectively prevents a similar health service from opening in any other Canadian city.

Insite arose as a community response to epidemic-levels of HIV and Hepatitis C infections and overdose deaths in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. A decade of research shows that Insite saves lives, and those of us close to the ground understand the central role Insite plays in the tapestry of specialized healthcare the most vulnerable Canadians need.

Despite the evidence, the site has not operated without controversy. When the last federal Conservative government refused to grant an exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) that would allow Insite to keep its doors open, our community took the fight to protect Insite all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. It was only through the judicial branch that this life-saving site was able to stay open.  

In 2011, the Supreme Court of Canada decided Canada (Attorney General) v. PHS Community Services Society, which established that the Minister of Health's failure to provide an exemption to allow Insite to continue to operate threatened the health and the lives of injection drug users in the Downtown Eastside. The Court held that the Minister's decision violated drug users' constitutional right to life and security of the person. The Court concluded that, "Where, as here, the evidence indicates that a supervised injection site will decrease the risk of death and disease, and there is little or no evidence that it will have a negative impact on public safety, the Minister should generally grant an exemption." [para 152]. 

Harper’s government and the Minister of Health don’t appear to agree with what the court concluded. If they did, Bill C-2 would never have been introduced. This bill turns the court’s direction on its head and says except in exceptional circumstances, exemptions will never be granted. It then sets out a laundry list of extra requirements that applicants for new centres must meet before their applications are even considered. Insite, as the only existing facility operating under an exemption, now has an additional suite of information it must submit about crime data in order to have its application considered. 

What the Harper government is trying to do is wrong. It is also unconstitutional.

Last November, I went to parliament to explain the Supreme Court decision to a parliamentary committee and to ask them to reject the bill. The government ignored me. And they ignored the mountains of academic research and testimony from legal experts, drug users, and healthcare professionals that say supervised injection sites are the best way to protect the constitutional rights of people who use drugs -- to keep them alive and make them well.

Despite the evidence and despite the testimonies, today the majority of parliamentarians -- all of them members of the Conservative party -- voted to pass the bill into law.

It still needs to have three readings and a committee study in the Senate before it officially becomes law, but the clock is ticking for it to be passed before the federal election, which is expected in October.

If we believe in a vision of Canada that values the health, human rights, and well-being of our communities, this bill must not pass. And if it does, let’s remember in October that the best way for us to respect our communities is to vote for a different government.