Third reading of Bill C-2, An Act to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act

Hon. Art Eggleton:

Honourable senators, I rise to add my voice to the previous speaker and many other Canadians calling for a rethink on Bill C-2 or the so-called respect for communities act.

You will have to forgive me as, after much study and hearing much debate, I still fail to see which communities this bill aims to respect. Currently, section 56 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act gives the Minister of Health an opportunity to provide an exemption for safe injection sites, be it for medical or scientific purposes, or if it is otherwise in the public interest. Without this exemption, clients and staff members would be at risk of criminal prosecution for possession of illegal substances.

It is important to remember that these facilities are not supplying drugs to clients. What they do is create a safe, sterile environment to use and facilitate access to support services for those who want to quit. When things go wrong, they offer emergency medical services. They save lives.

As you are all aware, there is currently only one such facility in Canada that receives this exemption, and that is Insite in Vancouver. My colleagues who have spoken about this bill have given excellent speeches detailing the benefits that Insite has brought to Vancouver’s downtown east side. Let me just go through a few of them again: 1,418 overdoses at Insite between 2004 and 2010, but, under the capable supervision of Insite staff, not one single death.

They have been able to reduce the HIV risk behaviour, such as needle sharing. There has been increase in the number of people entering into treatment for their addiction and a reduction in the number of public injections that take place in parks and stairwells and many other public places. That is even evident around the site of Insite, where injection-related litter has substantially been reduced.

Despite the public good that Insite is providing on a daily basis, Bill C-2 threatens Insite’s existence and will almost certainly prevent the creation of similar sites in future. Under the terms of this bill, safe injection sites in Canada would have a number of new obstacles to overcome when applying for exemption under section 56 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

For many, the logic of attempting to prevent such proven services simply does not add up. The Supreme Court certainly didn’t see the logic. In the court’s landmark ruling on Insite in 2011, they said denying safe injection services would be:

. . . grossly disproportionate to any benefit that Canada might derive from presenting a uniform stance on the possession of narcotics.

They found that:

. . . Insite has been proven to save lives with no discernible negative impact on the public safety and health objectives of Canada.

That comes from the Supreme Court. That shows respect for our communities. Ultimately, the Court found that closing down Insite would violate the Charter rights of those who use it.

The immediate response from the government following the ruling was they were “disappointed.” Disappointed with what? That lives were saved? That they couldn’t violate the Charter rights of those suffering from debilitating addictions?

I don’t think the new bill, Bill C-2, is going to meet the test that the Supreme Court looked at and it will be found in violation of the Charter of Rights and the Constitution of Canada. I think we are headed for another Supreme Court hearing if this bill passes as is.

Honourable senators, under Bill C-2, facilities that wish to run a supervised consumption site must submit 26 pieces of information to the minister before the application would even be considered. Twenty-six. The Canadian Bar Association stated that:

Our concern is that Bill C-2 would actually subject applicants to such a rigorous application process and so many new conditions as to make it virtually impossible to establish new safe injection sites, or to continue operating existing sites.

As Senator Campbell has noted, no other health clinic is required to provide such an extensive list of information.

One particular point of contention I have is the provision in this bill that potential staff members at a centre must submit criminal record checks to the health minister. These criminal record checks would go back a long time, 10 years. In that connection, I understand that, just above the Insite facility, is another one called Onsite, where users can seek counselling, including peer-to- peer assistance. One of the most effective strategies in quitting any addition is discussing this process with those who have succeeded in getting out of it themselves. Undoubtedly, many of those individuals have faced drug-related charges at some point. They were, after all, addicts themselves. So now they want to help others but will be flagged from drug-related charges from a darker past — a past, I must reiterate, that they have courageously overcome.

Is it this government’s intention to prevent the peer-to-peer counselling that has proven so effective in overcoming addiction? Is it? Why does the minister, of all people, need this kind of private information?

Honourable senators, my colleague Senator Campbell has provided an excellent overview of the situation in his home city of Vancouver and of the good work that Insite is doing there. I’d like to tell you of the situation in my city, Toronto.

In 2013, Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health released a report calling for facilities like Insite in specific areas of the city. Currently, Toronto has an impressive network of services that facilitate needle exchanges. Through these services, addicts can exchange their used needles for clean ones. The report noted that in 2010 alone there were 75,000 user visits to these services, and 1.1 million needles were distributed along with other sterile injection supplies. Again, this was in just one year.

These facilities do not operate like Insite. They cannot facilitate supervised injection. Instead, users obtain their needles and leave to find a place to inject. If they do not go to their homes or a shelter, users report that they inject in stairwells, alleyways or in public washrooms.

While the needle exchange program in Toronto has done a commendable job of providing sterile needles to help cut down on disease and death, it can do little to save the life of an addict who overdoses and dies in a stairwell, in a back alley or in a public washroom. Little can be done but to collect contaminated needles left in the grass or in stairwells around Toronto.

For this reason, the 2013 medical officer’s report recommended supervised injection services at locations that already facilitate needle exchanges. Instead of collecting a clean needle and walking away, addicts would inject in an environment that protects both them and the surrounding area.

Honourable senators, as some of you may be aware I am the lead on a task force in Toronto to improve public housing. As you can rightly assume, there are addicts who live in many of these homes; as you can also correctly assume, so do many families — people with a lot of kids. Put simply, the argument that a safe injection facility will attract drug users to a community does not hold water. The drugs are already there.

The question begs to be asked: Is a child safer when their neighbour is injecting in the stairwell of their apartment building or down the street at a safe injection site? That’s a logical question, isn’t it?

This government wants you to believe that facilities like Insite encourage drug use and attract addicts to the communities where such services are located. Bill C-2 exists only because evidence from Insite and facilities like it around the world fly in the face of this government’s view that addicts are criminals and should be treated as such.

As they cannot deny the facts based on legal or scientific grounds, they spread the misinformation that such sites will pop up, and I quote a Conservative Party petition that said, “in our backyard.”

Only four days ago, the Minister of Justice said his government is focused on treating drug addicts as opposed to making “more available access to often illegal drugs.” He was responding to Montreal’s push to open its own supervised injection sites. Such a statement conveys a fundamental misunderstanding, misrepresentation of what these centres do.

Honourable senators, to deny these communities a tool like Insite to change this dangerous reality does not respect these communities in the least. Instead, it condemns them to the same cycle of death and disease that they have all but gotten used to. Supervised injection services get contaminated needles off the street. They provide ready support services for addicts who decide to seek help, and, most importantly, they save lives. Why in our right minds would we want to deny these services in communities that need them the most?

Yes, indeed: Respect those communities. Vote for the amendment that Senator Campbell has just put on the floor. That would make this bill reasonable. Otherwise, it should be defeated.

Hon. Serge Joyal: Honourable senators, I would like to ask a question of Senator Eggleton. I apologize for not giving him the substance of my question earlier, but given that he was the Mayor of Toronto, he might be in a position to answer.

The Mayor of Montreal said in a public statement, I believe two weeks ago, with a representative of the Montreal police force responsible for addiction issues, that even though he would not receive approval from the Minister of Health as it would take too much time, he would authorize an injection site if he got approval from the provincial Minister of Health. It would mean that if the provincial government authority agrees with the opening of a site and the mayor and the police forces agree, they could circumvent the procedure that Bill C-2 proposes.

Are you aware of that?

Senator Eggleton: You’ve just made me aware of that possibility.

If all those people are in agreement, and I understand they are and why they would be in terms of what these sites can do for the city, then I think they should proceed. How the legal jurisdiction works vis-à-vis the federal government remains to be seen. I don’t know the answer to that. You probably would know better than I.

Senator Joyal: I’m sorry I didn’t have time to look into it because I was preparing another file. I tried to figure the logic of this because we are dealing with proposed amendments to the Criminal Code — this is “not nothing.” The Criminal Code applies across Canada and should be implemented equally across Canada. Is it for the provincial authority responsible for prosecution to inform the Director of Public Prosecutions not to go after the presumed illegal establishment of a site where drugs are used? Perhaps that is the way to bypass the process that Bill C-2 would put in place.

Senator Eggleton: Well, that may be quite possible. There was another issue, but I have forgotten what it was, where the provincial government in Quebec decided it wouldn’t prosecute. That would be an interesting way to test this.

There is provincial responsibility for health care and if the Minister of Health sees it as something that should proceed and with the kind support of the Mayor of Montreal, the police and others, yes, this may be something they could take on and do. In terms of the absolute final legal ramifications, maybe the federal government would back off, and I hope they will.