Marking the 10th Anniversary of INSITE

It’s ironic, and typical, that as INSITE celebrates its 10th anniversary of successful operation in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the Conservative government in Ottawa is still railing against Safe Injection Sites and no doubt has Bill C-65 ready to go when Parliament returns October 16.

Bill C-65, An Act to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, was the last bill to be introduced before parliament recessed in June. It’s a nasty bill, couched in anti-harm reduction rhetoric, full of misconceptions, and designed to shut down any attempt to open a safe injection site in Canada.

The bill is a shining example of Conservative ideology trumping evidence-based health and science.

But try as hard as they can – INSITE just won’t go away and nor will public support for it. After numerous court rulings, including the Supreme Court of Canada, enormous public scrutiny, more than 24 peer reviewed scientific studies, INSITE will continue no matter what legislation the Conservative government throws at it.

September 2003 marks the opening of INSITE, but the struggle to get there began many years before that.

The original application to Health Canada was subject to a run of hurdles that would have challenged an Olympic athlete. The then Liberal government was wary and skeptical of approving the original Section 56 exemption under the Controlled Drug and Substances Act that was needed for INSITE to operate. Mounting public pressure, particularly from Vancouver, forced the government into giving the exemption and INSITE launched its critically needed services.  INSITE opened as part of a public health plan after a 12-fold increase in overdose deaths in Vancouver between 1987 and 1993. At the time, the Vancouver area was also seeing drastic increases in communicable diseases amongst injection drug users, including Hepatitis A, B, and C and HIV/AIDS.

What has been remarkable about INSITE is its ability to overcome political challenges and retain strong community support.

I remember vividly, participating in a community action named “1000 Crosses” in Oppenheimer Park. The crosses represented the people who had died needlessly from drug overdoses.  I vowed to take the message for action to Ottawa, as a newly elected Member of Parliament.

I recall how opposed the local business community was at first when INSITE was first raised as a needed health intervention and to save the lives of injection drug users. I remember meeting with Allan Rock, then Minister of Health in in Ottawa in 1997, and later, with Bud Osborn, who came to a second meeting to convince the Minister that INSITE could turn the tide of preventable drug overdoses. Bud presented Allan Rock with a book of his powerful poetry that spoke the truth about the situation in the Downtown Eastside. Poetry that became a rallying call for action, and this excerpt from Bud’s poem stays with me:

“……but with these thousand crosses

planted in oppenheimer park today

who really see them

feel sorrow

feel loss

feel rage

our hearts shed bitter tears

these thousand crosses are symbols

of the social apartheid in our culture

the segregation of those who deserve to live and those who are abandoned to die these thousand crosses represent the deaths of drug addicts these thousand crosses silently announce a social curse on the lives of the poorest of the poor in the downtown eastside….”.

Even in opposition the Conservatives wouldn’t consider a shred of mounting evidence that INSITE was part of the solution, not the problem.  Prior to the 2006 election we invited Stephen Harper to visit the facility on East Hastings Street, to see for himself what important work was underway. Of course he refused. Conservatives don’t like reality to confuse their “truth”.

INSITE had to fight tooth and nail to get its permits to operate extended, while in Ottawa in 2007 the Conservative government eliminated “Harm Reduction” from Canada’s Drug Strategy. But still INSITE continued to garner positive international reviews and continued to save lives.

10 years marks a sustained commitment by the Vancouver Network of Drug Users (VANDU), and the Portland Hotel Society and many others who never shied away from the belief that drug users have human rights, dignity and a right to access health care. 

On my part, I’m proud to have been part of this struggle for INSITE and what it stands for.  I remain determined to defeat not only Bill C-65, but also the architects of the absurd stance that public policy can ignore scientific evidence.


Libby Davies

MP, Vancouver East