Health minister makes surprise visit to controversial safe-injection site
Thursday, January 04, 2007
VANCOUVER - Canada's health minister made his first-ever visit to a safe-injection site, touring the Insite facility in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside Wednesday.
Tony Clement, accused by critics of having a hidden agenda against such operations, spent about 30 minutes in Insite during his surprise tour.
Clement strolled through the waiting room, injection room and lounge of the operation during his tour, chatting with users and staff while reporters waited outside.
Clement was a tough critic of safe-injection sites as health minister under former Ontario premier Mike Harris about three years ago, vowing to keep them out of that province because he preferred anti-drug education, awareness, treatment and rehab for addicts.
Since entering federal politics, he has been accused of being equally skeptical.
''I had a good chat with the staff there, understood some of their procedures, asked a lot of questions, got a lot of answers,''Clement said after his tour.
But he declined to say whether his views had changed.
''I think I am continuing to get a deeper understanding and this is all part of being the best health minister I can be for the country,''he said.
Insite, which opened in 2003, faced the prospect of closure last fall as Clement tried to decide whether to renew an exemption that allows the use of illegal drugs inside the facility.
He eventually decided to allow Insite to operate through the end of 2007, awaiting studies on supervised injection sites that will help him decide on its long-term fate.
He defended the fact that he did not visit before making that ruling.
''It's important for me to accentuate that I am here now,''he said.
Clement, on the second day of a visit to Vancouver, was previously non-committal about a visit to the operation, which has been praised by B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell and Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan as a means of controlling the health risks associated with injection drug use.
But he said the timing was right Wednesday because he was also visiting a nearby Salvation Army detox centre and homeless shelter.
Clement began his tour about 30 minutes after Insite opened for the day so clients entered and left as he was inside.
''A couple of the clients recognized him,''said Chris Buchner, HIV/AIDS and harm-reduction manager with Vancouver Coastal Health.
''(They) were very interested in telling him how important this place was to them,''said Buchner.
Buchner said people were shooting up as Clement had his tour.
''(Clement) was very interested, very attentive,''he said.
Dean Wilson, a board member with the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, said he was stunned to see Clement through Insite's front window while passing by.
Wilson said the sight of Clement initially drew his attention because the minister was well dressed, standing out among the regular clients.
''I wanted to see who it was, and then I saw it was honorable member Clement so I went right after him,''said Wilson.
The pair chatted for several minutes.
''I just wanted to tell him that we never promised that this would stop crime,''Wilson said, referring to Insite.
© CanWest News Service 2007
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