Nurses push for injection site support on campaign trail

A coalition of nurses and nursing students is hoping to put injection sites on the agenda during the federal election campaign.

The group called Nurses for Supervised Injection Services is encouraging others to vote for parties that support the creation of more sites throughout Canada.

The Conservative Party, which has fought Canada’s only supervised injection site for drug users in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, is the only one of the major parties that does not support the expansion of such sites. The Conservative government passed a law that supporters of the sites say creates barriers for communities opening injection sites similar to Vancouver’s.

Marilou Gagnon, an associate professor of nursing at the University of Ottawa, said nurses are generally supportive of supervised injection services because they “really understand why they are important and should be implemented.” There are more than 280,000 registered nurses in Canada.

She said the aim of the campaign is to “mobilize the voices of nurses and nursing students” to draw attention to the importance of the issue during the campaign. It is also to remind nurses to “put their nursing hats on” when they vote, she said.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has said he wants such sites across Canada. The NDP’s Thomas Mulcair has also said he supports supervised sites, as have Green party and Bloc Québécois leaders.

A law recently passed by the Conservatives could make it more difficult to open such services in Ottawa and elsewhere, however.

Despite that, Luc Cormier, nursing team leader at the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre’s Oasis program, said the organization is preparing an application for an exemption that would allow one to open in Sandy Hill, as part of a range of services provided as part of the Oasis program.

The centre already offers a needle exchange, opiate substitution and other services to drug users, and Cormier said a supervised injection service would just be one more aspect of the program. “The model we are looking at would be integrated within the current existing structure we offer,” he said.

Cormier said all the political and media attention focused on Vancouver’s Insite and supervised sites have made it a bigger issue than it should be. Adding such a service in Ottawa, he said, would have a minimal impact. “We see it as an additional service we owe to our clients to be able to provide for them.”

The centre has begun consultation and other work to prepare to apply for an exemption to federal drug laws to allow such a service to operate. Among barriers it has to overcome first is that both Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson and police Chief Charles Bordeleau oppose injection sites.

Sandy Hill is not the only group considering applying for one in Ottawa, which has a high HIV transmission rate, linked, in part, to unsafe injection drug use.

Gagnon, meanwhile, says the coalition of nurses pushing for supervised injection services is grassroots and represents nurses working on the front lines across the country. So far, the coalition has 400 members, Gagnon said, but she expects that to grow as the information campaign gets under way.

“There is really strong support (for this) within the nursing community, it is pretty unanimous.”

Major nursing organizations intervened at the Supreme Court of Canada in the Insite case and took action to oppose Bill C-2, which creates barriers to opening such sites and has since become law.

Gagnon noted that drug users will find a place to inject if supervised sites are not available. By offering a place that is clean in conjunction with other services, the health system has a better chance of helping them.

By Elizabeth Payne
Source: Ottawa Citizen