Minister defends bill requiring consultation on injection site applications

The federal government would be irresponsible if it did not insist that recently tabled legislation regarding drug injection sites include provisions requiring community consultation, says a Conservative cabinet minister.

“This is clearly a matter of public health and public safety, and I think Canadians would expect the minister of health to listen carefully to the municipal and community leaders in a jurisdiction where an injection house is proposed,” Pierre Poilievre, the Minister of Employment and Social Development, said in an interview Wednesday.

“I think we need to take into account everybody’s point of view … (and) it would be irresponsible to ignore the voices of the mayor, the police chief and the local community if an application for a drug injection house comes forward.”

In Ottawa, both Mayor Jim Watson and Police Chief Charles Bourdeleau have voiced concerns about setting up an injection site.

The minister’s comments follow criticism this week by safe-injection site proponents who say Bill C-2 makes it harder than ever to establish such sites in Canadian cities.

“Should Bill C-2 become law, it will be extremely difficult to open a supervised injection site anywhere in Canada, including in Ottawa,” said Lisa Wright, an organizer with the Campaign for Safer Consumption Sites, which has been campaigning for such a site in Ottawa.

Bill C-2, titled the Respect for Community Act, includes a requirement that the federal health minister be supplied with demographic and scientific data pertinent to the would-be site, letters from representatives of local police and local and provincial governments, information about the proposed staff, and a description of planned procedures regarding the site’s operation.

As well, the minister would receive a description of the potential impact on public safety, including information, if any, on crime, public nuisance and drug-related litter in the vicinity of the proposed site. There is also a requirement for “scientific evidence demonstrating that there is a medical benefit to individual or public health.”

In 2011, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that former federal health minister Tony Clement’s decision in 2008 to shutter Insite, an experimental injection site for drug addicts in Vancouver approved by the previous Liberal government, failed to take into account obligations of fundamental justice set out in the Charter of Rights. The court determined the federal government didn’t produce sufficient evidence to show the site’s continued operation would be detrimental to the health and safety of the wider community.

Injection sites proponents hailed the ruling as a de facto legalization of such sites throughout the country and a constitutional guarantee for the continuation of existing sites like that in Vancouver.

However, the Supreme Court was explicit in saying that while Clement has erred in refusing Insite’s exemption, it also said “granting a permanent constitutional exemption would be inappropriate.”

The federal government “should not be precluded from withdrawing an exemption to Insite should changed circumstances at Insite so require.”

Moreover, the ruling “does not fetter the minister’s discretion with respect to future applications for exemptions, whether for other premises or for Insite. As always, the Minister must exercise that discretion within the constraints imposed by the law and the Charter.

Poilievre, the MP for Nepean-Carleton and the regional representative in the Tory caucus, acknowledged the government has long opposed injection sites but, at the same time, has to abide by the Supreme Court’s decision. In his view, though, Bill C-2 complies with that ruling.

“There is no question the court allowed discretion for the minister,” he said, adding, however, that the ruling “does not justify blind, ideological support for injection houses across Canada under all circumstances.

“That is the stated position of Justin Trudeau … Our approach is to exercise the discretion that the court gave (in allowing) the health minister to consult police, residents and municipal leaders on these proposed injection houses.”

Earlier this week, in a speech to UBC students, the Liberal leader expressed support for the injection site idea, saying, “I certainly want to see more safe injection sites opened around the country.”

By Robert Sibley
Source: Ottawa Citizen