Bill C-2: A Supreme Court legacy of indecision

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      Bill C-2, the Respect for Communities Act, has passed through the House of Commons and is now under debate by the Senate Committee of Legal and Constitutional Affairs. The committee will meet again to discuss the bill on May 13, collecting testimony that will eventually be presented to the Senate to determine the bill’s final fate. 

      The bill outlines 27 requirements a health-service provider must meet when applying to open a new injection site. Any potential facility will have to receive a criminal exemption to operate or staff and clients could be punished under federal drug laws.

      The bill is simply red tape sold as quality control.

      The federal government claims that it will ensure communities are kept “safe and healthy” without ever describing what that really means. Ottawa says it is simply a series of checks and balances. The problem is, these checks are too numerous and complicated, making it impossible for new sites to open.

      Letters from police, community support or opposition, and elected officials at different levels of government are required to sign off before an application can even be considered for the necessary exemption. A vast range of statistics must be collected and put on paper at a high cost to applicants.

      The underlying assumption here is that some people matter more in communities than others.

      The majority of the 27 requirements focus on elected officials, police, and community members who may be inconvenienced by an injection site. The people that use injection sites and experience the health benefits aren’t found in the bill at all.

      For the Conservatives, people that use drugs don’t belong under the banner of communities or families, and their concerns are a low priority when considering an application.

      But Bill C-2 is part of a deeper problem. Injection sites float in a jurisdictional limbo between federal drug laws and provincial health jurisdiction. Vancouver’s Insite employs medical staff. It has been at the center of numerous health research projects. However, ultimate authority over the site falls to the federal Minister of Health discretion. His or her political stance will clearly affect their “discretion”.

      Let’s be clear: the Harper government is against Insite, and it has tried to use every available tactic it has to halt its operation. The question is, why do the Conservatives have so many maneuvers in their toolbox in the first place?

      Ironically, the power the Conservatives have can be traced back to the Supreme Court decision on Insite in 2011, which many Insite supporters believe was a victory. After all, Insite kept its legal exemption and has remained open ever since. But once we begin to unpack the conclusions of this case, things get a bit murkier.

      Yes, the court ruled that closing Insite would violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. No, the court did not rule on whether or not Insite was a provincial health concern or a federal drug matter. Insite had its vast range of supporters, including the Vancouver Police Department, so it was allowed to stay open. But the court sat on the fence when it came to deciding whether or not drugs and injection sites are subject to drug laws or health jurisdiction. Instead, the court deferred to the federal Ministry of Health’s discretion when it came to injection sites.

      So, the Conservatives have always spoken out against injection sites, and this bill is their latest pre-emptive strike. However, they are playing within the rules that were set out by the Supreme Court. In some ways, they are just going along with the Supreme Court’s suggestion that communities be incorporated into decision-making.

      “Evidence”, “crime rates”, “local conditions”, “regulatory structure”, “resources”, and “expressions of community support or opposition” are all identified as important for a decision about a federal exemption. The Supreme Court decision was a small victory, but the indecision about jurisdiction has allowed the Harper government to continue interfering.

      Governments must come to some consensus about whether injection sites are a health issue or a criminal matter. Until they do, this sort of red tape will keep appearing depending on who is in government. The Conservatives may be unrelenting in their war on injection sites, but they are playing by the rules laid out by the Supreme Court. If we want to see more injection sites helping out in other communities, it is time to change the way the game is played.

      Zakary Zawaduk is a master’s of public health student at Simon Fraser University.

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