Respect for Communities Act

Elizabeth May: Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to have the opportunity today to speak to Bill C-2. Members will know how unusual it is for a member in my position in this House to actually get a chance to speak at second reading to any of the legislation. This is a particularly important piece of legislation, and I am pleased to stand here and urge that, when this piece of legislation goes to committee, the Conservative members should actually take on board significant changes, in a departure from current practice. In fact, the most important and significant change that could be made would be to withdraw this piece of legislation altogether.

Let me go back and review some of the history of how it is that we find this piece of legislation before us, as was described by my friend earlier, the member for Burnaby—Douglas. Vancouver is the site of North America’s only safe injection drug site. It is absolutely a sign of progressive, science-based decision-making within the municipality of Vancouver and also within the province of British Columbia.

The InSite safe injection site in Vancouver, just to put it bluntly, bottom line, saves lives. That is what matters. The InSite safe injection drug site in Vancouver does not promote drug use; it does not increase the number of people in the criminal element, but it seeks to save the lives of those who are so unfortunate that they have become users of illegal drugs.

To cover some of the history, we know this whole area of public policy is known as “harm reduction”, and a safe injection drug site is designed to assist people get to care, get to help and avoid overdoses. The studies that have been done make it clear on any empirical analysis that this is cost effective, saves lives and is in the interest of public health. It has been found to work as a system. Safe injection drug sites have been found in studies by international agencies—the United Nations drug and illegal substances organization, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the World Health Organization and others—to have the kind of approach in harm reduction that works and saves lives. The specific data from the InSite site in Vancouver confirm all this.

Why do I bother to mention all of that? It is because the current bill before us, Bill C-2, really goes back to a failed effort by a previous minister of health in 2008 to shut down the InSite centre by refusing to extend its licence. As one can imagine, a centre that allows the safe injection of otherwise illegal substances does require an exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Back in 2008, the then-minister of health, currently the President of the Treasury Board, decided not to extend its licence. This was a decision taken in the absence of facts. It was taken in essentially a fact-free zone in which, unfortunately, too much of the legislation from the current administration resides. In this fact-free zone, it did not matter that InSite was saving lives; it mattered only that it involved illicit drugs and that there might be some scope here on an ideological basis, going along with an agenda that is generally described as “tough on crime”. In this case, it would be tough on people who have been unfortunate enough to become drug addicts.

Going back to the 2008 decision, that gave rise to several court cases that ultimately were resolved in the Supreme Court of Canada in a case of Canada (A.G.) v. PHS Community Services Society. The decision of the Supreme Court of Canada was handed down on September 30, 2011. What the court said was that the services of this InSite drug facility, for which the minister of health had refused to provide an extended exemption under the act to allow the site to continue to operate, were found by the Supreme Court to reduce health risks.

Further, the court said:

On future applications, the Minister must exercise that discretion—

This is the discretion the minister has to allow exemptions under the act. Then it continues:

—within the constraints imposed by the law and the Charter, aiming to strike the appropriate balance between achieving public health and public safety. In accordance with the Charter, the Minister must 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.

Those are very strong words from the Supreme Court of Canada. First, it said this harm reduction safe drug injection site in Vancouver was in the public interest and was necessary because it reduced health risks. In other words, the Supreme Court found on all the evidence that this safe injection drug site saved lives. It further found that, if the minister is looking at exemptions in future cases, the minister must turn his or her mind to the question of whether denying such an exemption would cause deprivations of life and security of the person and that there must be an appropriate balance between public health and public safety.

If there were a good-faith effort in Bill C-2 to find an appropriate balance between public health and public safety, then this piece of legislation would not have emerged. There is no attempt at balance here. Bill C-2 is, pure and simple, an attempt by the current ideologically driven administration to do indirectly that which the Supreme Court will not let it do directly. This is a convoluted attempt to make it impossible, or virtually impossible, for future ministers to approve any more exemptions to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to allow for safe injection drug sites.

Let me share with the House why I say that this is not a good-faith effort to find balance. This is a disguised attempt to shut down safe injection drug sites. In other words, it is an attempt, through the legislative process of this place, to let people die when we know how to save people’s lives. That I find unconscionable.

If we look at subclause 56.1(3) of the act, which requires the minister to examine any application for an exemption—in other words, a permit to allow such a site to exist—it starts with a review for 26 different criteria. More than two dozen different criteria must be provided to the minister. Ironically—and I think we will all find this ironic—the first is scientific evidence. It is only by ignoring the scientific evidence that this particular administration wants to shut down such sites.

Scientific evidence must be provided, as well as letters from all and sundry, such as the police chief and local government. There must be surveys to consider what kind of local litter problems there are in the community. They must have statistics pulled together, which is again ironic from an administration that has shut down access to many statistics. It is a long and convoluted process.

I found the most stunning requirement was not the financing plan of how this would be self-sustaining, but at the early stage when anyone is applying to run such a site, the applicant must provide the name, title, resumé, relevant education and training of the proposed responsible person. In other words, before someone can even get permission to run such an operation, that person has to have staff ready and on site, and all of their qualifications must be put forward to the minister. Not only that, but the applicant has to have run extensive checks on the possibility that in any previous jurisdiction in which the employees have ever lived, they may have run afoul of the law.

On top of all the specific conditions and requirements for an applicant, there is the general (z) provision, which is “any other information that the minister considers relevant for the consideration of the application”. In other words, on top of these multiple onerous requirements before an application can even go to the minister, the minister can make up anything else that he or she feels like asking the applicant to provide.

If that was it, we could say it is important in any community to ascertain that the people who are running safe injection drug sites know what they are doing, that they are competent, that they have considered all the evidence and that it would be welcomed in the community. That is not necessarily unreasonable, but there is no balance. All the factors go against saying yes.

However, then we come to subclause 56.1(5), which is really putting the kibosh on any new site because the minister may only grant an exemption for a medical purpose if the applicant has taken into account certain principles.

Paragraphs 56.1(5)(a) to 56.1(5)(f) list principles that all go toward a thought process that leads to no. They must take into account that illicit substances may have serious health effects, that there are health risks, that there is a risk of increasing organized crime and that organized crime profits are part of the drug trade. There is no mention once that the minister should take under his or her consideration the fact that safe injection drug sites save lives. It is not even in the list of possible considerations for a minister. Therefore, after all the considerations are received and after all the hurdles to opening such a site, the list of principles under this act lead any minister to be forced toward saying no.

In other words, this bill is not about balance. This bill is a disguised prohibition on doing what the Supreme Court of Canada said we must do.


Judy Surgo: Mr. Speaker, I want to congratulate my hon. colleague on saying exactly what is in this bill.

From my days as a municipal councillor, I know very well what to do to ensure that nothing happens in a community. There have be enough conditions and requirements to make it impossible.

It is a disguised attempt in saying, yes, these sites are welcome and we recognize a problem, when clearly that is not the direction. At the end of the day, the government wants to make sure there are no other sites like this.

These sites are clearly what is needed when we look at the studies on harm reduction and what is needed in our country. Our whole war on drugs of which I have been very supportive is not working, regrettably, in the way that we have been addressing it, in the U.S., in Europe and in Canada. We need to look at doing things differently.

Harm reduction has started with this clinic. I visited this clinic many years ago when it first opened. I was uncomfortable with the whole idea, but I went and visited. I talked to people in the Vancouver area. I really became convinced that, whether I wanted it or not, we have to accept that there is a problem, we have to try to fix it for those who need our help and we have to look at harm reduction for those particular people.

This clinic is one of the things we need to have in particular areas of the country. I would like to ask the member if there are other opportunities across Canada where she thinks these kinds of facilities should be located.


Elizabeth May: Mr. Speaker, clearly the term she used is part and parcel of this, the “war on drugs”.

There has been a war on drugs in North America for decades now. If we are taking a body count, we are losing. Organized crime is winning. That is not what any of us wants.

I have some exposure to those people who have been so unfortunate as to become addicted to illegal drugs, and only by the grace of God has it not been close to my family. However, friends of my kids and my grandkids are at an age where they could be exposed to these drugs.

Nobody in this place wants more people to be exposed to illicit drugs. Nobody wants to see the profits of organized crime go up. However, if we look at the track record of the so-called war on drugs, we will see that it is failing.

Let us try harm reduction. Let us save the lives of people who can come to a safe place and then have access to the kinds of assistance, therapy, supports and counselling that get them off drugs for good. Let us not pretend we are doing something while we turn a blind eye to their suffering.


Mark Warawa: Mr. Speaker, I want to thank the hard-working member across the way for her interventions.

I do have a question for her. The purpose of this bill is to highlight the importance of consultation. In fact that is what the Supreme Court has said, that we have to have proper consultation. That is what the bill is asking for. Those are the changes, that we have adequate consultation before we have a new supervised injection site in Canada.

We have one in Vancouver, but if there were to be others, they would require consultation. Would the member oppose having consultation? If she does, what does she suggest replaces consultation?


Elizabeth May: Mr. Speaker, I do not think any of us would be against consultation.

These are sensitive issues, and I think we need more dialogue, not the kind of tactics that divide. I saw in one of the press stories that there was a fundraising appeal from the Conservative Party saying that the opposition members want to bring illicit drugs into communities so that people would be shooting up in neighbourhoods. That is unhelpful. I would not attribute those kinds of comments to my friend across the way at all.

What we need to have is that kind of conversation in which everybody is brought into the picture. For instance, in downtown Victoria we have problems with illicit drug use. We have people who are addicted and who get help through a fantastic facility in Victoria, Our Place. It is not a safe injection drug site, but it provides services, help and respect to people who are living on the streets.

Anything that provides a point of contact, respect and help to people who need help is of value. I think that can be discussed in a kind of enlightened fact-based respectful communication. Certainly some people may object within a community, but we should have consultation.

What is wrong with this bill is not that it involves consultation; it is that it creates a structure that makes it almost impossible under the way the law is written, given the principles the minister must consider, for a minister to say yes when a minister should.