Willful ignorance underpins Tories’ SCS position
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Ignorance can present itself in many forms. It is often benign, a manifestation of educational deficit or intellectual limitation that results in a lack of awareness. Sometimes it creates conflict, when misunderstanding melds with anger or aggression in manner that causes tempers to rise.
Most often, ignorance is unintentional — those who demonstrate it simply don’t know what they don’t know, so their behaviour is shaped by the cognitive constraints within which they function.
There is one form, however, that is corrosive in the extreme — and that is ignorance that is willful and deceitful.
This appears to be what was demonstrated recently by Minister of Mental Health and Community Wellness Sarah Guillemard. Upon returning last month from a meeting of federal, provincial and territorial health and mental-health ministers in Vancouver, she cited “researching various types of addictions services and harm-reduction approaches” and “seeing supervised consumption sites in Vancouver” as the rationale for the Progressive Conservative government’s continuing opposition to the establishment of a supervised consumption site (SCS) here.
Officials attending the conference were offered a tour of harm-reduction sites in the city with some of the foremost experts on drug policy in North America, which would surely have offered an opportunity for an assessment of the benefits and/or shortcomings of SCSs, a well-established approach to harm reduction.
As it turns out, the “research” and “seeing” described by Ms. Guillemard did not include actually setting foot inside the facility to examine the processes and logistics of SCS care. Rather than taking the tour and accessing the knowledge of what the B.C. government described as “some of the foremost experts on drug policy in North America,” the Manitoba minister, accompanied Alberta Public Safety Minister Mike Ellis, opted to walk around Vancouver’s downtown eastside to form her own opinions of the site and its surroundings.
”Everywhere we walked, people were consuming drugs. Many were in catatonic states or passed out,” Ms. Guillemard tweeted after her “tour,” adding the hashtag #heartbreaking.
In advance of the B.C. meeting, the minister received a letter signed by 80 front-line organizations and service providers calling for the establishment of a SCS here in an effort to reduce the number of drug-related deaths. Parroting the Pallister/Stefanson government’s ideological hard line on the issue, Ms. Guillemard responded, “The strongest harm-reduction strategy is actually to encourage individuals off the drugs.”
While there’s nothing surprising about this minister continuing to tout an approach anchored in the PCs’ bootstraps-mentality ideological bedrock, the disingenuous manner in which Ms. Guillemard framed the Vancouver visit as a basis for an informed conclusion on SCS viability is a grave disservice to Manitobans — particularly those whose desperate circumstances put them at risk of a drug-related demise.
That a government spokesperson later asserted Ms. Guillemard “never said she visited a supervised consumption site in Vancouver” is beside the point. Such a denial amounts to semantic quibbling; what seems abundantly clear is that the minister sought to create the impression her visit to (or, for argument’s sake, near) the Vancouver site reinforced the Manitoba position that the SCS model is not wanted here.
“It does make you wonder how important the actual evidence is in the decision-making,” said Sande Harlos, president of Manitoba Public Health Association. “Ideology is not sufficient to base policy decisions on when peoples’ lives are hanging in the balance.”
Ms. Guillemard’s dissembling on the SCS issue raises questions about her fitness to lead in the mental health and community wellness portfolio. And in broader political strokes, it is demonstrative of a confounding combination of willful ignorance and arrogant tone-deafness that will be front of mind when this government sends Manitobans to the polls next fall.
Updated on Wednesday, December 14, 2022 10:01 PM CST: Clarifies that officials were offered a tour of harm-reduction sites in the city, not a specific site on East Hastings Street.