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Conservatives avoid staking out clear position on supervised consumption sites

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre rises during Question Period, in Ottawa, Monday, June 5, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre rises during Question Period, in Ottawa, Monday, June 5, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
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As debate around the Liberals' drug policy dominated parts of the spring House of Commons sitting, the Conservatives are offering little insight into what approach they would take when it comes to supervised consumption sites.

When asked earlier this month if a future Tory government would look to change the application process for opening such centres, the party's addictions critic said she couldn't speculate.

"But I do think that this has been politicized into a space that is pitting one perspective versus another and that's not helpful," Laila Goodridge said.

At supervised consumption sites, users can inject or inhale drugs under the watch of staff who can intervene in the case of an overdose. The centres also often offer drug testing, clean supplies to prevent the spread of disease and referrals to detox or treatment facilities.

Poilievre has been clear about his opposition to other harm reduction strategies that seek to mitigate the opioid overdose crisis.

Those include decriminalization efforts to help keep users out of jail and "safer supply" programs that provide pharmaceutical alternatives to toxic street drugs.

Instead, he wants to offer people "a path to a drug-free life" by emphasizing treatment and recovery. In a 2022 opinion piece, Poilievre also promised to create a national distribution program for nasal naloxone to help reverse overdoses.

But what about supervised consumption sites?

Asked for the party's position, Goodridge pointed out that the Supreme Court of Canada has already ruled on the matter.

"I would recommend that you read that," she said.

In a landmark 2011 decision, the court unanimously ruled that closing the doors of Canada's first supervised drug injection site would deprive users of their Charter rights.

The decision kept Insite in operation despite opposition from the then-Conservative government, and the health minister was required to grant an exemption to federal drug laws.

Poilievre's office declined to say whether he supports supervised consumption sites or would include them as part of his approach to tackling the toxic drug crisis.

It also wouldn't respond to a question about a reported statement by Poilievre at a town hall in northern Ontario in January. The Sault Star reported that he told the crowd he wouldn't be prepared to fund supervised consumption sites.

And Poilievre's office also didn't answer whether he would review any current operations or change the requirements for operators.

"It sounds like they're trying to have it both ways, which you can't do," said University of British Columbia law professor Benjamin Perrin, once an adviser to Harper.

"You either support them or you don't."

Four years after the Supreme Court decision that prevented it from shutting down Insite, the Harper government passed the Respect for Communities Act.

It required prospective supervised consumption sites to meet a suite of criteria in order to operate, such as tracking crime rates and consulting with local residents and police.

After they were elected, the Liberals passed their own law allowing facilities to open with more ease. There are now 39 supervised consumption sites, according to Health Canada, and another 10 open applications.

Goodridge, an MP from Alberta, noted there are facilities in her home province.

"We have continued to have supervised consumption sites, recognizing that they are part of the continuum of care in a recovery-oriented system," she said.

But they "have to be done in a way that takes into account all factors."

Alberta's United Conservative Party government says it's shifting focus away from what it calls "acute interventions" in favour of putting more resources toward long-term recovery from addictions — an approach Poilievre applauds.

In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford has pulled funding from some supervised consumption sites and in 2018 said he was "dead against" them.

Critics say both provinces are mounting an attack on harm reduction, as an increasingly toxic drug supply drives a staggering death toll. More than 40,000 people have died since federal tracking began in 2016.

Poilievre has noted his opposition to a few specific supervised consumption sites.

Several weeks ago, he asked the federal health minister to refuse an exemption requested by a site in Montreal, citing residents' concerns about its proximity to a school and daycare.

Goodridge said that, "as a mom," she doesn't think the centre's location is mindful of "what is best for community and community well-being."

Earlier this year, Poilievre also asked supporters to oppose the proposed opening of a "new drug site" in Richmond, B.C. He accused the Liberals and New Democrats of "pushing drugs on the Chinese community," as some members of that community protested the location of the centre.

When it comes to the question of whether any supervised consumption sites should be operating, other Tory MPs have sent mixed messages, critics point out.

Alberta MP Glen Motz told the House of Commons in April that "there is no such thing as a safe consumption site," while B.C.'s Todd Doherty more recently suggesting in a committee that his party hadn't settled on a position.

"Not one person is talking from the Conservatives, whether it's our leader or ourselves, not one of us has said anything about safe consumption sites in any policy, any conversation," Doherty said, adding he believes "there are many tools in the tool box."

The New Democrats' critic for addictions, Gord Johns, said, "We can't get an answer out of the Conservatives."

He added: "Good luck."

Perrin said one way for a future government to get around the Supreme Court's ruling would be to use the notwithstanding clause.

That allows a government to pass laws that override parts of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms for up to five years.

Poilievre has said he would be prepared to use the clause in order to keep convicted killers ineligible for parole for a longer period of time. His office has clarified that any use of that tool would be restricted to criminal justice matters.

"This is a criminal justice issue," Perrin said of supervised drug sites.

Poilievre's office declined to answer whether they agreed.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 22, 2024. 

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