Sunday, May 25, 2008

Dion supports Insite while Harper and Clement dither, possible Hill hearings Thursday

Liberal leader Stephane Dion was on the left coast on Friday, and I was glad to see he used a speech there to reaffirm the Liberal Party’s support for the Insite safe-injection site.

"The site must stay open," Dion said during his Vancouver visit Friday, flanked by his B.C. caucus members and Insite supporters. "It depends on the will of the prime minister.

"I ask them to listen to science, not their ideology," he added. "The science is telling us that this facility is saving lives. It's as simple as that. It's a matter of life and death for many people."

The last Liberal government granted the facility a temporary permit, and the facility's current temporary permit is set to expire June 30; the Conservatives have been dithering on the future of the facility and appear to be gearing-up to kill it, despite the fact the science says its working, and so do the people in the community.

The Conservatives are trying to hide behind the science. Health minister Tony Clement says they’re waiting for more reports to be in. In fact though the science is in, it just doesn’t support the Conservative ideology.

University of B.C. Dr. Thomas Kerr, the top researcher for Insite, said it has improved public order, reduced needle-sharing among addicts and gotten them treatment.

"The science is in," he said. "This health facility works. It's saved lives that would have been lost to overdose."

Since the site's opening, scientists have been conducting studies on its effectiveness, and Thomas Kerr, one of the principal research scientists evaluating Insite, said the results are conclusive.

"Insite is doing what it was supposed to do. It improved public order. It has reduced HIV-risk behaviours, in particular syringe sharing and connected people to treatment," said Kerr. "There is no academic debate. This is good public policy," he added.

So, the science says the facility works. It saves lives. Some 22 peer-reviewed studies all support the facility. That’s a whole lot of science. But what do the people in the community say? Surely, if the Conservatives ignored the community, they’d listen to the people, right?
The head of the Chinatown Merchant Association, Albert Fok, joined Dion at the facility to give support to the site remaining open.

Chinatown, which is two blocks from Insite, is the neighbourhood closest to the Downtown Eastside and Chinese merchants had opposed the facility.

But within two years of its opening, Chinatown merchants say they saw a marked decrease in street crime and are now staunch advocates of keeping the facility alive.

"It's an undeniable fact that the optics have improved as a result of the opening of the site and it should continue to be open," said Fok.

Clement and Harper say this isn’t ideological. Well, the science is in, and it’s in favour. The people that live there, in the community, on the ground, and were once even opposed to the facility, now say it’s not only working, and not only say it should say, they say it’s actually reducing crime. Will this be enough for the government to give Insite the support it deserves or is this just all about ideology for them after all? It seems to me that the Cons are desperately trying to find any non-ideological reason to make a decision that supports their ideological bent, and they're failing spectacularly.

I wonder what John Reynolds would say about all this? You’ll remember he was the national co-chair of the last Conservative election campaign, and a former senior Conservative MP. He has also been a registered lobbyist for Project CAST. According to lobbyist registry data, he was retained by Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan to help obtain a “grant for drug rehabilitation in Vancouver” by lobbying MPs, Health Canada, Justice Canada and, yes, the Prime Minister’s Office. According to Vancouver council both CAST and Insite are important parts of a comprehensive strategy on drug use.

With just over a month left for Insite as things stand now, it looks like this issue will be heating-up in Ottawa this week as the HoC’s standing committee on health hold hearings on the facility. Here’s some of the details for Thursday’s hearings (via the Sun’s Frances Bula):
Please note that the meeting will take place from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Witnesses will be appearing before the Committee from 10 a.m. to approximately 11:50 a.m., either in person or by videoconference.

At 11:50 a.m., the Minister of Health, the Hon. Tony Clement, will be addressing the Committee and answering questions until 1 p.m. Witnesses are welcome to remain in the committee room during the appearance of the Minister if they wish to do so. The entire meeting will be open to the public.

Witnesses are asked to limit their presentations to five (5) minutes in order to accommodate the large number of persons confirmed to take part in the meeting and to allow sufficient time for questions from members of the Committee.

Here is the list of witnesses confirmed so far:
Dr. Julio Montaner, Chair of AIDS Research, University of B.C. (by videoconference)
Dr. Thomas Kerr, Chief Researcher for InSite, University of B.C. (in person)
Inspector Scott Thompson, Youth Services Section, Vancouver Police Department (in person)
Liz Evans, Portland Hotel Society (in person)
Dr. Neil Boyd, School of Criminology, Simon Fraser University (by videoconference) Dr. Donald Hedges, Addiction Treatment Specialist (by videoconference)
M. Mario Gagnon, Director General, Point de Repères in Québec City (in person)

Mr. Donald MacPherson, Social Planning for the City of Vancouver (in person)
Mr. Philip Owen, Former Mayor for Vancouver

It should be interesting to hear what Clement and the other witnesses have to say, and particularly the tone and track taken by the Conservative questioners on the committee. One snag though: I can’t find any notice that the meeting is happening on the parliamentary Web site. The only meeting of the health committee the site shows scheduled is for Tuesday, with the subject “
Statutory review of the 10-Year Plan to Strengthen Health Care."

Could just be a Web site update issue, I don’t know. Anyway, if the meeting does happen hopefully live-blogger extraordinaire Kady O’Malley will be able to add it to her committee live blogging schedule.

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