B.C. government injects truth into Manitoba official’s account of drug-site visit Guillemard stayed outside Vancouver supervised consumption facility; ‘it’s awful,’ public-health advocate says of Tories’ ‘myth-making’
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Community Wellness Minister Sarah Guillemard told Manitobans last month her continued opposition to supervised injection sites was influenced by visits she made to Vancouver’s safe-consumption facilities.
But she never actually set foot inside one, the Free Press has learned.
“Vancouver Coastal Health does not have a record of Minister Guillemard touring Insite (a supervised injection facility) on November 7th or having any conversations with staff at the OPS (overdose prevention site),” B.C.’s Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions said in a statement this week.
Guillemard was in Vancouver in early November for a meeting of federal, provincial and territorial health and mental-health ministers. On Nov. 8, she tweeted about a previous day’s visit to East Hastings, an area home to many people with addictions issues and also where the Insite facility is located.
“Everywhere we walked, people were consuming drugs. Many were in catatonic states or passed out,” she said in the tweet.
She was quoted the following day in a Manitoba government release specifically referencing her visit to supervised injection sites.
“After researching various types of addictions services and harm reduction approaches with the Department of Mental Health and Community Wellness and seeing supervised consumption sites in Vancouver, I am certain our government’s current approach for the pursuit of long-term recovery is the correct path for our province,” Guillemard said in the release, which went on to say the minister witnessed “people using drugs on sidewalks in front of the Insite supervised consumption facility.”
Supervised injection sites, also known as safe or supervised consumption sites or services, are places where people can use their own drugs under supervision without fear of being arrested. Those who visit can also access harm-reduction supplies including clean needles, and be connected with additional supports, such as housing and treatment options. Staff have access to Naloxone or oxygen and are trained in how to revive someone who overdoses.
No one has ever died at a supervised consumption site in Canada.
Thomas Linner, provincial director of the Manitoba Health Coalition universal health-care advocacy group, said it appears Guillemard was suggesting she had done her due diligence, even though she may have only walked past the sites.
Witnessing drug use in an area where people are known to struggle with addiction does not mean supervised injection sites don’t work, he said.
“If you take two seconds to think about it, it doesn’t make sense,” Linner said, referring to the way the visit was framed. “It’s awful.”
“If you take two seconds to think about it, it doesn’t make sense… It’s awful.”–Thomas Linner, provincial director of the Manitoba Health Coalition
He said the province is “desperate” to prove supervised injection sites won’t work here and is reduced to “making stuff up.” He noted Premier Heather Stefanson has repeatedly pointed to increases in crime at sanctioned supervised injection sites in California — no such sites exist.
“It is extraordinary the lengths and the myth-making that they have gone to,” Linner said.
When asked this week for clarification about her tweet and the provincial government’s statement, Guillemard would neither confirm nor deny if she went inside the sites.
“I was in Vancouver for a meeting of federal, provincial and territorial health and mental health ministers. While there, I accepted an invitation to join some ministers for an informal tour of East Hastings led by someone with lived experience,” she said in a statement to the Free Press. “Walking through the district, I saw supervised drug consumption sites and witnessed the conditions that people experience daily in that area.”
Guillemard said she had “heartbreaking” conversations with people who use drugs.
The B.C. government, meanwhile, said Guillemard was, in fact, invited on a tour “with some of the foremost experts on drug policy in North America” of a centre that supports young people with mental health and substance use issues and a Rapid Access Additions Clinic at St. Paul’s Hospital.
“Instead, Minister Guillemard opted to walk around Vancouver’s downtown eastside with her Alberta colleagues independently of the formally organized FPT (federal, provincial and territorial) tours,” the B.C. government said.
The B.C. ministry defended its approach to harm reduction, saying there are 42 overdose prevention and supervised consumption sites in the province.
“These sites have seen a cumulative total of over three million visits, over 22,300 overdoses responded to and survived, and zero deaths,” read the statement.
Insite, established in 2003, was the first sanctioned supervised drug injection site in North America.
The Stefanson government has come under fire from harm-reduction advocates who criticize the province’s hard line against supervised injection sites. Advocates say the facilities save lives — especially amid a toxic drug crisis, when people don’t know if their street drugs are contaminated and to what extent — and that the government has little evidence to show they aren’t needed.
More than 400 Manitobans died of overdoses last year, and the number is expected to climb this year. Manitoba is the only province west of the Atlantic region without safe injection sites.
Katrina Clarke is an investigative reporter with the Winnipeg Free Press.
Updated on Friday, December 9, 2022 8:35 PM CST: Clarifies Manitoba is the only province west of the Atlantic region without safe injection sites.