Guillemard misled Manitobans on supervised drug sites, critics say NDP, Liberals assail community wellness minister who declined tour of Vancouver facilities; public owed explanation, doctor says
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Manitoba’s opposition NDP and Liberals are calling on Community Wellness Minister Sarah Guillemard to resign, saying she “misled” the public by suggesting she visited supervised drug-consumption sites in Vancouver when she did not go inside.
Guillemard didn’t say she visited, a spokesperson said.
On Friday, the Free Press revealed that the B.C. government has no record of the minister entering a site or speaking with overdose prevention staff. Guillemard said her November experience “seeing supervised-consumption sites in Vancouver” informed her decision to reject the model at home.
A Manitoba government release also stated she “witnessed various supervised consumption sites including people using drugs on sidewalks in front of the Insite supervised consumption facility.”
The B.C. government added that Guillemard rejected an offer to tour other harm-reduction sites with drug-policy experts during the meeting of Canada’s health and mental-health ministers.
“I think it’s very clear that she is out of her depth, that she would much rather put her ideology ahead of experts’ recommendations,” said Uzoma Asagwara, the NDP health critic. “While she took her walk and refused to meet with experts, residents of Manitoba are dying of overdoses.”
In a statement, an unnamed spokesperson for Guillemard said she “never said she visited a supervised consumption site in Vancouver.” (The Free Press asked last week if she visited a site — and specifically, if she went inside — but she would neither confirm nor deny.)
“The minister did, however, very clearly describe the disheartening and unacceptable conditions as well as the drug use she observed and conversations she had with drug users and others on the streets of East Hastings,” the statement went on to say.
Guillemard will continue in her role, the spokesperson said.
Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont called the matter “a new low, even for the PCs.”
“I feel misled because we were given the impression that the minister was out there and looked at these things and took it seriously — and she didn’t,” Lamont said. “It’s beyond a serious issue. This is an issue of life and death.”
“I feel misled because we were given the impression that the minister was out there and looked at these things and took it seriously – and she didn’t.”–Dougald Lamont
More than 400 Manitobans died of overdoses in 2021. That number is expected to climb this year.
Advocates and harm-reduction experts say supervised-consumption sites, also known as safe-injection sites, are not a “silver bullet” but they do save lives and help connect people who use drugs with supports. Manitoba is the only province west of the Atlantic region without such a facility.
Dr. Doug Eyolfson, a Winnipeg emergency-room physician and former Liberal MP, said it’s “beyond a stretch” to suggest that seeing the outside of a site provides insight into how they work. And the framing of Guillemard’s Vancouver trip was “deliberately misleading” if she didn’t actually go in, he added.
“I think she probably just wasn’t interested in the actual site because it wasn’t going to give any information that was going to change their minds,” Eyolfson said. “When you have an ideologic agenda, data becomes kind of pesky and inconvenient.”
Dr. Jillian Horton, a Winnipeg physician who cares for people living with addictions, said the minister owes the public — and her patients — an explanation.
“A lot of people find if bewildering why she would choose to represent the situation that way,” said Horton.
However, Horton said her patients and others like them don’t have the energy to be angry over a political misstep. She said she hopes Guillemard apologizes, starts listening to people with lived experience in her own community and commits to looking at the overwhelming body of evidence that shows supervised-consumption sites reduce harm.
“I honestly hope for her this becomes a teachable moment,” Horton said.
“I honestly hope for her this becomes a teachable moment.”–Dr. Jillian Horton
Sande Harlos, president of Manitoba Public Health Association, a non-profit that advocates for social justice, said the framing of Guillemard’s Vancouver trip raises questions how committed the Tories are to seeking out facts.
“It does make you wonder how important the actual evidence is in the decision-making,” Harlos said. “Ideology is not sufficient to base policy decisions on when peoples’ lives are hanging in the balance.”
The statement from Guillemard’s spokesperson said the Stefanson government remains focused on “treatment, support and recovery” and will continue to “follow scientific evidence on harm reduction and addictions services in our province.”
Katrina Clarke is an investigative reporter with the Winnipeg Free Press.
Updated on Monday, December 12, 2022 7:55 PM CST: Part of Jillian Horton's quote removed, the statement was misattributed