December 14, 2018

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Opposition MLAs grill Tories over report's deleted 'safe injection site' recommendation

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>NDP leader Wab Kinew during question period in the Legislature.</p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

NDP leader Wab Kinew during question period in the Legislature.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/5/2018 (212 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Only six words were deleted from a long-awaited report on mental health and addictions before it was released to the public: “a safe injection site in Winnipeg”.

Online document comparison software shows that phrase was the only change between an early iteration of the report that was accidentally released, and the version that was meant for public release.

The change continues to fuel allegations of political interference.

Opposition MLAs devoted most of question period on Tuesday to concerns about the implications of deleting the recommendation that called for a safe injection site in Winnipeg as a harm reduction measure. It was included in a March 31 version of the report mistakenly released to reporters Monday morning.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/5/2018 (212 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Only six words were deleted from a long-awaited report on mental health and addictions before it was released to the public: "a safe injection site in Winnipeg".

Online document comparison software shows that phrase was the only change between an early iteration of the report that was accidentally released, and the version that was meant for public release.

The change continues to fuel allegations of political interference.

Opposition MLAs devoted most of question period on Tuesday to concerns about the implications of deleting the recommendation that called for a safe injection site in Winnipeg as a harm reduction measure. It was included in a March 31 version of the report mistakenly released to reporters Monday morning.

"They have a real credibility problem right now," said NDP leader Wab Kinew. "Not only is the rollout of this report flawed, deeply flawed, but it now looks like the set up of the report has a major problem in it."

Kinew is referring to the reason the report’s lead author, Dr. Brian Rush, gave for removing the recommendation. Rush has denied political interference.

"I simply did not have enough information," he told reporters on Monday. Rush, whose year-long consultation process included some 3,000 pieces of information, said that while he personally supports safe injection sites he felt more leg work was required to conclusively recommend one in Manitoba.

That study would require researching the number of drug users on the streets, what drugs they’re using, Rush said, and whether those who are using drugs want such a site.

But, Kinew asked, why didn’t Rush have that information and why wasn’t that study done? Kinew also noted Rush told reporters he didn’t know that Main Street Project is proposing a safe injection site in Winnipeg otherwise he would have asked to see the proposal.

"They haven’t shared important information with Dr. Rush," Kinew told reporters. "They didn’t share data on drug use in Manitoba which seems like it would be fundamental on having a report on addictions."

Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen said he wasn’t privy to the conversations Rush had with Main Street Project. He believes the parties met at one point although he couldn’t say whether it was over the phone or in a group context.

"This wasn’t a secretive process," Goertzen said. "I don’t know or wouldn’t know why Main Street Project or anybody else who was involved in those consultations would have felt restricted in what they could have said to him."

Rick Lees, executive director for Main Street Project, was out of the office Monday and Tuesday and did not return requests for comment.

After answering questions about the consultation process and discussions between members of his department and the Virgo team, Goertzen’s press secretary, Kevin Engstrom, cut off questions.

The Free Press then sent Engstrom questions asking about the government’s next steps in enacting the report’s recommendations and what, if any, recommendations have been enacted since its release. (The government did announce funding for five rapid access to addictions medicine clinics last week in keeping with the report).

Engstrom's only response was an email saying, "it's unfortunate you didn't ask these questions" during scheduled media times. The Free Press did ask those questions on Monday but received no specifics. Engstrom rebuffed all Virgo questions during a separate media availability Tuesday morning and cut off questions in the afternoon.

The report calls for government action across all departments, including justice, families, and education and, of course, health. It calls for substantial increases in funding and frontline staffing, more communication and care overlap between the traditionally siloed services for mental health and addictions, as well as a more community-based focus that takes into account differences and disparities in lived experiences across the province.

"This is a report calling for a bold government response," Rush has said.

jane.gerster@freepress.mb.ca

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