Bowman hints Winnipeg could pursue safe-injection sites without provincial approval

Incumbent mayoral candidate Brian Bowman suggested Winnipeg could pursue a safe-injection site even if the province doesn't approve.

'We shouldn't rule anything out when it comes to lives,' mayor says after debate

Mayoral candidates Tim Diack, Jenny Motkaluk, Don Woodstock, Doug Wilson, Umar Hayat, Venkat Machiraju, Brian Bowman and Ed Ackerman attend a Tuesday-night debate at Manitoba Hydro's downtown headquarters. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

Incumbent mayoral candidate Brian Bowman suggested Winnipeg could pursue a safe-injection site even if the province doesn't approve.

Speaking at a mayoral debate at Manitoba Hydro's downtown Winnipeg headquarters on Tuesday evening, Bowman said he would not rule out the possibility of allowing a safe-injection site within the city, even if Brian Pallister's Progressive Conservative government doesn't allow for such a facility.

The mayor said the severity of the methamphetamine and opiate crisis requires the city to keep its options open when it comes to potential means of preventing fatal overdoses.

"We have a meth crisis here like other Canadian cities and I don't think we should be taking a partisan or ideological lens. I think we need to keep all options open," Bowman told reporters following the debate, adding he's been speaking to the Main Street Project and relatives of people who've died of overdoses.

"What the families are telling me is don't rule anything out," he said. "We shouldn't rule anything out when it comes to lives."

The Pallister government has been cool to the idea of safe-injection sites.

Earlier this week, Pallister noted a recent report commissioned for the province on mental health and addictions didn't include a call for safe consumption sites.

"The Virgo report didn't highlight safe injection sites as some of the key aspects that would address the issue," the premier said.

A safe consumption site was mentioned in a draft of the report but didn't make it into the final version.

A plan to implement recommendations from that report will be announced this fall, Health Minister Cam Friesen said Tuesday night.

"We do not wish to wade into a municipal campaign, but acknowledge that candidates are debating the issue robustly and presenting a number of ideas," Friesen said in a statement via email. 

  "We will fully engage with the new council after the upcoming election as part of our continuing efforts to address these challenges in our communities." 

The Tuesday debate was the third mayoral forum of the election season and the first to feature all eight mayoral candidates: Bowman, Jenny Motkaluk, Tim Diack, Don Woodstock, Umar Hayat, Doug Wilson, Ed Ackerman and Venkat Machiraju.

Bowman under fire for meth inaction

During the debate, Bowman repeatedly came under fire from Point Douglas beat patrol officer Diack, Woodstock and Motkaluk for failing to do enough on the methamphetamine file and for failing to keep Winnipeg safe in general.

At one point, Woodstock stormed off the stage after demanding to know when Bowman first knew about the meth crisis. Hayat convinced Woodstock to return.

Motkaluk, who has made public safety the main issue of her campaign, said downtown businesses are "teetering on the brink" because of garbage and needles.

After the debate, she said furniture store Hoopers is leaving the Exchange District. Her communications director Dave MacKay promised to identify other businesses that are leaving downtown.

Hoopers is moving to Sargent Avenue in the Polo Park neighbourhood. Motkaluk said businesses in the Exchange are dealing with crime, addictions and a shortage of parking. She said the delivery company FedEx is refusing to service businesses located along new bike lanes.

Motkaluk: Not a lot of 'choice riders' on transit

Motkaluk also said Winnipeg Transit is unsafe, suggested police officers should ride buses and called the system unpleasant and inefficient to use.

"How is it possible that we still have one of the world's worst transit systems?" she asked.  "We don't have a lot of people that you would call 'choice riders' on the bus, because in other cities, you take transit because it's better, faster and cheaper."

This comment led Woodstock, a former Winnipeg Transit driver, to object and Bowman to insist "a Winnipegger is a Winnipegger is a Winnipegger."

After the debate, Motkaluk said she employed a poor choice of words and meant only to say Winnipeggers only take transit if they don't have other means of getting around.

The debate also saw Bowman take fire for his decision to support a referendum on reopening Portage and Main this July after pledging to bring pedestrians back to the intersection four years ago, when he first ran for mayor.

Motkaluk called Bowman's decision political expediency. The incumbent mayor also struggled to explain why he didn't use his council majority to shut down the referendum motion when it was proposed by Couns. Jeff Browaty (North Kildonan) and Janice Lukes (South Winnipeg-St. Norbert).


Bartley Kives

Senior reporter, CBC Manitoba

Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba.