Do we have the civic leadership in place to properly address the addiction problem in Victoria? Sitting council members who support the plan we have are gone or going, while a new slate of candidates is gearing up for a fall election. Most worrisome this article's author Rick Barnes, are the shifting goalposts and Clintonian definitions.
Mr. Mayor, what is harm reduction?
Well, I suppose that depends on what your definition of is, is.
Do Victoria politicians support a safe injection site or is the election just too close for comfort? On July 19 the City (Mayor Alan Lowe) and VIHA hosted a public meeting where they handed out material that posed this question, "What is harm reduction?" The list included several examples -- from straight ahead descriptions like brushing your teeth, to using a condom during sex. Not a bad beginning but what about supervised injection sites? The paper stated "(harm reduction) is not a supervised injection site (unless the community wants it to be)."
Has something happened on Vancouver Island since I left the land of BC ferry hostages? Last year while I was on the Board of VARCS, (the best little non-profit AIDS service and support agency in Canada) in Victoria, the Mayor was sounding very supportive of supervised injection sites...
"We've been hearing about people shooting up in the alleys, people shooting up in people's front yard, around people's businesses and schools. In order to deal with some of those problems, we do need a safe injection site." Mayor Alan Lowe, Mar 19 2004 (CBC Radio ~ Victoria needs safe injection site, says mayor.)
The Mayor of Victoria was not expected by many to be supportive of the idea and received praise from then Victoria Civic Electors (VCE) city councilor, Rob Fleming:
Fleming: "I'm pleased that the mayor is an admirer and supporter of it (supervised injection site) and that there seems to be people from across the political spectrum and the community with an interest at looking at it," Fleming told the Mark Browne of the VicNews Weekend Edition, April 5, 2004
How tough has the opposition been Mr. Mayor? Lowe mentioned that some people have told him the city shouldn't be "going down this route." But when they hear about the needles on the street and addicts shooting up in front of downtown businesses, they change their tune. -City looks to drug strategy of Vancouver,Times Colonist Friday, April 23, 2004.
So far you would think that the entire Victoria City council supports the supervised injection site. However there can be no doubt that it was the leadership of VCE and councilors Fleming and Denise Savoie that prompted City council to address this issue seriously. Now Fleming is gone, and Savoie looks to have an excellent shot at being elected Victoria's MP, where is leadership to come from on this issue?
It appears that leadership on this issue is no longer coming from the current gang of VCE or the Mayor.
Mayor Lowe noted at the July 19 meeting that Vancouver's InSite facility was experiencing great success, but in the same sentence, he added that Victoria is not the Downtown Eastside. We need a "made-in-Victoria solution." My question here is what does this mean? Harm reduction isn't a safe-injection site, but it might be if the community says so? Safe-injection facilities are working in Vancouver, but they won't work here? What is the city saying? Does Mayor Lowe favour having a site here in Victoria or not?
One person at the meeting asked Lowe what others have avoided. Paul Lidgate, candidate for a VCE nomination asked the Mayor if he supported a stand alone safe injection site or an integrated health-care site like he saw in Europe.
The Mayor who only eight weeks previously stated Victoria needed a safe injection site with the additional support and medical services responded somewhat differently this time. "The city needs to talk to people, a safe injection site is not yet what we're looking at." Lidgate restated what he heard the mayor say,"...that what I heard you say was that you (Mayor Lowe) didn't have a definitive answer on the question of whether we should have a safe-injection site." Mayor Lowe responded that was correct.
Just where is this city council at? The Mayor and councilors were happy in 2004 to have everyone believe they were all on board and moving toward adding a supervised injection site to the harm reduction services in Victoria.
Paul Lidgate told me in an interview Friday "I'm expressing the same frustration evident in the Weekend Edition's editorial of July 22, that continued waffling and fence-sitting on this issue is doing harm to the issue itself. I know we need to build community support before proceeding with a safe-injection site, and I know there would be a great deal of bureaucracy to overcome to make it a reality."
Lidgate credits the progressive voices in the VCE for advancing the (safe-injection) issue and very likely pressed Mayor Lowe and others on council to address what might otherwise have been ignored.
Still Lidgate is concerned that some of those progressive voices may have backed away from this issue because of a possible public backlash. "Having put the issue on the agenda, progressive councilors should overcome partisanship and work with others on council to ensure the issue is properly and fully addressed, for the benefit of our city, for the sake of injection drug users, for all of us."
The question for voters in Victoria is one of what will happen next. Is this council hoping to put off the tough debate on this important issue until after the election? Voters will be electing people in the fall that will be making decisions on how the city advances harm reduction services and supports for drug users or if endless rounds of studies keep it from occurring.
Mayor Lowe and council have been supportive of advancing a harm reduction model similar to what the Mayor saw in Europe. The mayor has repeatedly referred to the successes in Vancouver. So why is VCE alarmingly quiet as the Mayor backpedals just months before an election?
This election is the time to have the debate with the people of Victoria. Councilors and the Mayor are supposed to lead.