Andrew Scheer slams 'terrible' Liberal approach to safe injection sites

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said the Liberal government’s approach to the opioid crisis — allowing for more safe injection sites nationwide — is "terrible," but he won’t yet say how a Tory government led by him would tackle a drug problem that has claimed thousands of lives.

The number of safe injection sites has risen to 41 under the Liberals, from one under the Conservatives

Federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer makes a campaign announcement in Saint John, N.B. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said the Liberal government's approach to the opioid crisis — allowing for more safe injection sites nationwide — is "terrible," but he won't yet say how a Tory government led by him would tackle a drug problem that has claimed thousands of lives.

The number of such sites — where people can inject intravenous drugs like heroin with clean needles — has soared under the Liberals, from just one in Vancouver to 41 across the country, according to Health Canada statistics. Applications are still pending for four more sites in Ontario, two in Alberta and one each in Saskatchewan and Manitoba'

Proponents champion these places as a way to help people battling addiction issues safely consume drugs while a nurse is on hand to prevent overdoses.

Experts say the sites are proven medical success stories because they keep drug users healthier and reduce costly hospital visits.

Vancouver's Insite, the country's first safe injection clinic, established in 2003, has seen more than 3.6 million visits with clients using illicit drugs. Nurses there have treated 6,440 overdoses — without a fatality — in that time.

Some communities oppose sites

And yet there's been fierce opposition from some communities, which fear that places like Insite will bring drugs and crime to their neighbourhoods.

Scheer echoed those concerns when asked about the issue during a campaign stop.

"We do believe that communities need to be engaged," Scheer said. "This is something that the government has not done a very good job that — it has done a terrible job. And we received a lot of feedback from people all over the country that they were not consulted, that the impacts on their communities were not taken into consideration."

Scheer said the party's plan to tackle addictions is in the works — and it'll be released later in the campaign. He didn't say if that plan will include curbing the number of sites.

An attendant holds equipment at a safe injection site in Vancouver. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

"We will have more to say on on addictions in general, but our focus is getting people off of dangerous drugs, not maintaining a lifetime of addiction. So that's the direction we're going to go in and we'll have more to say," Scheer said.

However, the Supreme Court of Canada in 2011 blocked an attempt by the former Conservative government to shut down Insite.

Charter rights cited by high court

The court found an attempt to close the site infringed on the charter rights of addicts under Section 7: the right to life, liberty and security of the person.

Scheer said he would respect the court's decisions on "these issues," but there will be a policy shift on the number of sites on his watch.

One thing is clear, the Conservative Party has rejected decriminalizing all drugs, as the Green Party recently proposed, in order to cut down on opioid abuse. Some observers have suggested decriminalizing drugs will shift the focus from one of legal wrongdoing to a matter of public health.

"I don't believe that's the way to go down. It's something that the Liberals are pursuing and contemplating. I can assure you that our party is not," Scheer said.

Former federal health minister Jane Philpott changed the former Conservative government's stringent regulations on safe injection sites, also known as safe consumption sites, after the Liberal government was elected in 2015.

She did away with some of the more onerous restrictions that made it difficult for municipalities to apply for the necessary permissions to open such a site.

A spokesperson for the Liberal Party said the opioids crisis is a national public health emergency and safe injection sites save lives.

"The Conservatives have openly criticized taking a public health approach to the opioids crisis. Andrew Scheer is taking the exact same ideological approach to the opioids crisis as Stephen Harper – who did nothing but treat this as a criminal matter for years. The Conservatives should answer as to why they insist on being against the evidence," Eleanore Catenaro said.

"We will continue to do all we can to save lives and turn the tide on this epidemic," she said.

Crime a concern around sites

In Calgary, crime rates in the downtown Beltline district have skyrocketed since the Safeworks Harm Reduction Program opened in April 2018.

Violence in the area is up nearly 50 per cent; vehicle crime has increased 63 per cent. The number of break-and-enters has jumped by more than 60 per cent and the total number of calls to police was up 36 per cent in 2018 compared with the previous year, according to police data.

Another injection site, this one near Toronto's Yonge-Dundas entertainment district, has been the source of much frustration for some local business owners and officials from neighbouring Ryerson University.

In some suburbs like Markham, just north of Toronto, where Scheer campaigned Monday, there have been well-organized campaigns against these sites for fear of bringing more crime to an area that has already seen a fair amount of drug-related crimes like grow ops and home-based drug labs.

Conservative MP Bob Saroya, who won his Markham-Unionville seat in the last election despite a Liberal wave, has been at the forefront of opposition to an injection site, accusing his city's mayor of being a Liberal lackey intent on forcing a site on the people of Markham.

In London, Ont., where the opioid crisis is particularly pervasive, the city is considering whether to place injection sites directly in some public housing buildings because so many residents are users. The proposal has caused concern among low-income residents who aren't on drugs, TVO has reported.


John Paul Tasker

Senior writer

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

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