Photo:  Stephen Dyrgas / flickr

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The Canadian Conservative Party’s director of political operations, Jenni Byrne, does not believe those suffering with drug addiction deserve a second chance. On the contrary, she unapologetically supposes that heroin and cocaine users are better to shoot up on a mephitic street corner than within safe, clean and regulated injection sites.

In a recent post on the party’s official webpage, emphatically titled ‘Keep heroin out of our backyards,’ Byrne posited a ferocious defense of Bill C-65, a piece of legislation to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA/Respect for Communities Act) which was introduced in the House of Commons on June 6.

The motion follows a 2011 Supreme Court ruling that required the federal government to grant an exception for Vancouver’s InSite safe injection facility (SIF), a one-of-a-kind service which provides valuable harm-reduction and disease-prevention strategies for the more than 4,000 chronic drug users in the city’s Downtown Eastside (DTES). If the bill passes, InSite will precariously remain the only legal SIF in all of North America — its fate solely in the hands of a Conservative leader who has previously stated he will “not use taxpayers’ money to fund drug use.”

Steeped in over two thousand words of bureaucratic and legislative language (the original provision contained approximately seventy words), Bill C-65 effectively blocks the future creation of new safe-injection sites while placing extraneous burdens on the already existing InSite facility. According to the Canadian Medical Association (CMA), the bill “places the onus completely on the applicant to fulfill stakeholder, government and community consultation requirements.”

In other words, Bill C-65 is designed specifically to bypass the Supreme Court by forcing prospective and existing SIF operators to follow dozens of strict criteria before Ministers of Health and Public Safety will even consider granting an exception. And while supporters of InSite are confident the facility will survive, the likelihood of any new centres offering clean needles and nursing supervision is all but dashed.

The Conservative Party message, then, is very clear: SIFs are socially hazardous, they threaten communities and, most dangerously, present an all too distasteful image of class stratification and urban squalor the government might prefer instead to hide.

Why Insite matters

Vancouver’s DTES is known to locals and most Canadians as the proverbial ‘ground zero’ of drug addiction in the country. Nearby ports are a gateway for illicit drugs such as methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine, while widespread needle use has resulted in a miniature epidemic of HIV/AIDS infections. According to a United Nations report, the DTES has a hepatitis C prevalence rate of 70 per cent and an HIV/AIDS rate of nearly 30 per cent. These figures place the district in the same category as Botswana.

Contributing to the decline — one that is felt in other Canadian urban centres — is the municipal and provincial government’s approach to public housing development, long decried by neighborhood residents and activists. Most DTES dwellers are public housing or single room occupancy (SRO) tenants and earn, on average, less than $15,000 per year. Alone they face the pressures of low wages, dilapidated living conditions and few chances at upward social mobility, while the homeless experience long lines at shelters or the barbarous perils of street life. Many SRO complexes, which are often located inside decrepit heritage buildings, are operated by slum landlords and left to rot without oversight or government intervention. Together, these conditions resemble what Mike Davis might call “urbanization without growth,” a phenomenon of the global south linked to the abandonment of social welfare and the withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the urban poor.

Gentrification is another common specter hanging perilously over the heads of those confined to the DTES. The encroaching privatization of housing markets, ‘urban beautification’ projects and “social mix” strategies have failed conclusively to ameliorate the lives of poor people. As a result, drug addiction, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and violence have increased unabated and unchecked, while private enterprise concocts its latest high-rise condominium project.

Amidst such difficult circumstances, it is of great concern why more facilities like Insite have not been established. While they do not alone address the overarching concerns of housing and privatized urbanization, they get to the source of the area’s social disintegration and confidently suggest change is possible.

Indeed, since opening in 2003, InSite has had more than 1.8 million visits and currently features 12,000 registered users. In 2012 alone, the SIF experienced 376,149 visits by 9,259 unique individuals, and administered 4,564 referrals to other social and health services. By connecting clients with these needed services, one study from the Harm Reduction Journal concludes that InSite has led to “improvement in several indicators including public drug use” and has enhanced “contact between a highly marginalized ‘at-risk’ population and the healthcare system.”

The language of class warfare

 Insite has consistently demonstrated, through scientific study and positive community response, that SIFs can become a valuable component of an ailing urban landscape and contribute to long-term change by targeting the substructures of poverty. The organization espouses a grassroots approach to social programming, enlists local and provincial infrastructure, and, most importantly, brings meaningful change to people’s lives. Far from being despised by most other citizens, as Byrne wantonly asserts, Insite has been lauded and championed by activists, citizens and the scientific community alike.

The Conservative government’s repeated NIMBYism and caustic attacks toward SIFs are misleading and, quite frankly, fuel class warfare. Their assertions that facilities like Insite are “drug dens for junkies” act to turn the nation’s collective back on the poor and those with mental illnesses who are unable to help themselves. Implicit assaults like these against the lower classes represent the most poisonous form of privileged hubris; instead of informing the Canadian public about the realities of addiction, and educating citizens about the virtues of assisting the less fortunate, the Tories have committed themselves to classism.

It is a disturbing trend when the policymakers who structurally perpetuate income inequality, breed poverty and contribute to drug addiction, are the same ones telling the public it isn’t any of their concern. Perhaps now is the time to reverse it.


Learn more about InSite and its remarkable service to the DTES here.

Harrison Samphir is the senior editor at The Uniter, Winnipeg’s alternative weekly magazine. He holds a B.A. (Hons.) in history from the University of Manitoba. Reach him at hsamphir[at]gmail[dot]com

Photo: Stephen Dyrgas / flickr