12th & Cambie: Ambrose not interested in harm reduction debate

Federal health minister wants harm elimination

Sometimes, you never know who is going to show up to a press conference.

So it was quite a surprise Monday when I saw federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose walk into a room at the Hyatt Regency to participate in an announcement regarding the First Nations Health Authority.

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When the provincial government issued an advisory last Friday about the press conference, there was no mention of Ambrose’s participation; it wasn’t until Monday morning that the advisory was updated but I didn’t look at it.

Frankly, I can’t recall the last time a federal health minister visited Vancouver — at least, visited Vancouver and attended a press conference where journos like me can actually ask questions of the minister.

So what to ask her … hmmmm … how about why the Harper government wants to close the Insite supervised injection site and make it difficult for future applicants to open a site in other parts of Canada?

After a hello and a handshake, I launched right in…

Do you plan to visit Insite?

“Well, not this morning because I have to get on a plane and go back to Ottawa. But I’d be happy to visit it anytime.”

Why doesn’t the Harper government want more injection sites across the country?

“The Supreme Court [of Canada’s decision to allow Insite to operate indefinitely] does compel the government to ensure that whenever an application is made for a supervised injection site, that certain parameters are met. That’s exactly what our legislation is about and, as health minister, not only am I compelled but I’m obligated to do that.”

The federal government’s introduction of the “Respect for Communities Act” sets out a long list of criteria that an applicant must meet to get an exemption to operate an injection site.

That includes the need for an applicant to provide information outlining the views of police, municipal leaders, public health officials and provincial health ministers.

The applicant is also required to provide documentation that shows the site’s expected impact on crime rates, treatment options for drug users, the public health reasons for needing such a site and evidence there are resources to sustain the site’s operations.

What about comments from various Vancouver leaders, including the mayor, drug researchers and Dr. Julio Montaner of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, that accuse the Harper government of not acknowledging the scientific research that suggests Insite is doing some good for entrenched drug users?

“I’m not interested in having a debate about harm reduction ... the larger debate that I’m trying to have is to put some focus — not just on Insite, which is controversial and one small part of the overall harm reduction — but let’s also talk about harm elimination. We do need to recognize that there are thousands of Canadians across the country that I don’t think we’ve done enough to reach out to — to talk about recovery and talk about treatment and prevention. I want to see us do more of that and you will see us do more of that.”

And then, before I could ask about illegal pot dispensaries operating in Vancouver, her handler whisked her away. Maybe next time.


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