By Heather Whiteside
I began my internship at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network in Toronto at the beginning of June, just days before the Ontario general election. As an Ontarian and a registered voter, I was listening closely to what each party was saying about major election issues, such as revisions to the school curriculum, the future of the province’s cap-and-trade program, funding for child care, and changes to personal and corporate income tax levels.
One issue in particular stood out from the rest: harm reduction services. The Legal Network is committed to reducing the harms associated with drugs and the harms caused by harsh, misguided drug laws. As an intern, much of my research focused on how we can ensure greater, equitable access to harm reduction services such as supervised consumption sites (SCS) and overdose prevention sites (OPS).
At the same time as I began diving into research on the legislative framework that governs the creation and operation of SCS and the legal barriers that women in particular face in accessing harm reduction services, the leaders of Ontario’s three major political parties were refining their stances on these necessary health services.
At work, I read through swaths of peer-reviewed, scientific literature that pointed to the benefits of SCS and OPS. I looked at evidence from other jurisdictions like Australia, Switzerland, and Spain which confirmed that SCS and OPS reduce the risks of disease and overdose death that are associated with injection drug use. I read reports concluding that SCS reduce public drug use and can connect people who use drugs to necessary health and social services when they are ready. The health and social benefits of harm reduction services are clear – I saw that repeated by the Supreme Court of Canada, front-line clinicians, academic researchers, and people who use drugs.
Then I’d return home, turn on the news, and hear the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario telling voters that he was certainly “not going to have injection sites in neighbourhoods.”
I began to see the immediate impact that the election results would have on the work of human rights organizations in Ontario like the Legal Network. When the Conservative Party, led by Doug Ford, won a majority government at the beginning of June, they reasserted a dangerous, anti-harm reduction view and promised to review existing SCS to determine if they “have merit” and are worth continuing. Hearing this only bolstered my motivation to support the Legal Network’s work.
Witnessing how a change in government can complicate human rights work, literally overnight, was frustrating. It also offered important reminders. At both the provincial and federal levels, the governing party’s agenda has a direct impact on the type and scope of human rights advocacy performed in Canada. The government influences how much funding is available to human rights organizations, how issues are framed in public discourse (and especially in the media), and even the means by which human rights are advocated for and protected; is the government of the day open to engaging in conversation with human rights organizers, or is positive change more likely to be achieved via adversarial means like strategic litigation?
We’re facing the “worst drug safety crisis in Canadian history,” and a change in provincial government can’t and won’t stop the work that is being done to save lives and protect the health of people who use drugs. It just means that Ontarians who are committed to improving access to SCS and OPS may need to adapt their strategy in response to Doug Ford’s stance on harm reduction services.