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Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Respect for Communities Act - Total disrespect of the public's health

In September 2011, the Supreme Court of Canada issued a unanimous ruling regarding the Vancouver Supervised Injection Site, Insite. The Court found that the Conservative government had violated the Charter rights of Insite’s clients when it refused to extend its exemption from the Controlled Drugs. The ruling was widely praised by the public health community and the Globe and Mail declared it “open doors to drug injection clinics across Canada "

The reaction to the Harper government’s recent Bill C-65, tabled June 2013, has been the polar opposite.

Named the “Respect for Communities Act,” it incorporates an extensive list of information and demonstration of support required for future applications for exemptions. Both Insite and any future supervised injection sites (SIS) would need to provide this information in order to obtain the exemption necessary to begin or continue operations.  On the list are groups that are basically given a veto over improving the public's health.

According to Minister Aglukkaq’s press conference comments, one of the Bill’s goals is to bring “bring much needed clarity to the way future applications are made.” However, the Bill outlines only the information an application must include, not the means by which it will be evaluated or who has independent authority to issue the decision. Greater clarity on how the Conservative party will use this information is given by the literal “Not in my Backyard  ” campaign it launched in conjunction with the bill.

The Bill’s goal of ensuring thorough community consultation and input is consistent with the standard public health programming practices and reflected in the 2011 Supreme Court ruling. However, it is telling, whose voices the Conservative government values by who is listed in the Bill and who is excluded – those whose voice would be enshrined in law, and who is left at the whim of the Minister.  Police and physicians have been given standing. The Supreme Court called on the Minister to “balance public health and public safety” and to consider “whether denying an exemption would cause deprivations of life and security of the person that are not in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice,”, to this end it is notable that potential SIS clients and their families are excluded from consultation in C-65.

This Bill exemplifies the Harper government’s antagonistic attitude towards harm reduction treatments.  The barriers facing new SIS facilities currently exist as demonstrated by the no new SIS sites in the twenty months between the ruling and the tabling of the C-65.

The Toronto Board of Health openly supporting the need for a supervised drug consumption site in Toronto will be the battlefield, not surprising given the predominant red colours flying over Toronto. If only Mayor Ford would publicly support such a need.

Bill C-65 is a setback, but even if it is defeated or dies on the order paper, significant challenges remain to moving supervised injection from the current two Vancouver sites to being a standard of best practice in care. Clarity is needed and fear will abound as it did with the first needle exchanges.  Since the public consultation leading up to the tabling of C-65 was non-existent, perhaps Prime Minister Harper might inject some of his own medicine and ensure that C-65 gets "open and balanced consultation".

Based on the myriad of health organizations that have already publicly filed objections, one can only imagine that someone unwilling to respond to the public health concerns might be utilizing their own substances. Harper has shown patience and persistence with the mandatory sentences for drug possession taking three sessions before it was stickhandled through the parliamentary arena.  Watch for a similar game being played to prolong the agony, district the opposition and ultimately block Canadians from accessing health services.

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