Tag Archives: Conservative government

The Harper Government: Making Our Streets and Communities Less Safe, Pounding the Vulnerable, and Snubbing the Supreme Court of Canada

How do you defy the highest court in the land?  

If you are the Conservative federal government, you replace a simple, straight-forward law with a gargantuan one that shouts, “In your face, Supreme Court!” In other words, you turn the court’s decision on its head.

That’s what Harper’s government did last Thursday when it introduced Bill C-65. The Bill is their response to the Supreme Court’s unanimous 2011 decision which declared that the Minister of Health must grant Insite, Vancouver’s supervised drug injection facility, an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, so that it can continue to provide health services.

Drug injection facilities are more than a place where drug addicts go to use drugs safely. The facilities promote public health by minimizing the harms associated with street-level, illicit drug use. They reduce incidences of drug overdose, the transmission of diseases through needle sharing, and the rate of serious infection. They increase public safety by reducing crime associated with drug use. The clinics, staffed by doctors, nurses, and therapists trained in dealing with addictions, also provide counselling, referral services, and immediate help to those who are ready to curb their addictions. In turn, all these benefits result in reduced societal costs associated with drug use.

But the Federal government did not like the Supreme Court’s telling it that it should continue to grant Insite the exemption it had since 2003.    

To get around the judgement, the government devised Bill C-65.

Under current legislation, the Minister may exempt any person from the application of the CDSA if, in the opinion of the Minister, the exemption is necessary for a medical or scientific purpose or is otherwise in the public interest. Plain and simple. The entire section uses up 70 words.  

But under Bill C-65, those 70 words are replaced with 2,627 words (not counting the preamble), most of which set up one colossal obstacle after another for any group that hopes to set up a safe injection site.

Under the Bill, applicants will be required to submit reports and letters from the provincial Minister of Health, Minister of Public Safety, the local municipality, the local police, and health professionals, as well as research, statistics, information on trends and other data, and also, significantly, reports on consultations held with a “broad range of community groups from the municipality,” including a summary of the opinions expressed, copies of all written submissions, and submissions on what applicants intend to do about those community concerns. All in all, there are 26 (or more, depending on how you count it) complex, costly, and onerous conditions that must be fulfilled before the Minister will even consider whether or not to grant an exemption.

One might argue, “What is wrong with having stringent requirements for setting up places where, after all, illicit drugs are going to be consumed?” Doesn’t that ensure that these clinics are safer?

On the face of it, the requirements do not appear unreasonable. But the Harper government is well aware of the societal benefits of these facilities. And so, it should advocate for their increased use, where justified. Instead, the government is erecting insurmountable obstacles in the way of anyone who may want to build a safe-injection site.

The truth is that Bill C-65 is not intended to ensure improved safety in the creation of safe-injection clinics. The real intention behind the Bill is to stop any such attempts dead in its tracks.

On the same day the government introduced the Bill, it also started a political public campaign to oppose the building of safe injection clinics anywhere.  

Jenny Byrne, the Conservative party’s main tactician, posted a fear-mongering, misleading message on the Conservative party’s web-site. The posting, entitled, “Keep heroin out of our backyards,” both misinforms and misleads the public, and capitalizes on fears based on insufficient information. It suggests to readers that such clinics are about to be set up in every neighbourhood in the country (which is simply untrue), and aims to collect the names of those opposed to such facilities, to allow for the most efficient and effective opposition, should there be a proposal for a safe-injection facility in any municipality. The message from the posting is clear: “We are totally against such clinics, and we’ve introduced the bill to make it harder for similar facilities to be set up elsewhere in the country.”

It’s a sad but unsurprising position and tactic by the Conservative government.

Instead of leading, the Conservative government puts up roadblocks.

Instead of increasing public safety and reducing harm, the Harper government perpetuates the conditions that lead to greater harm and risk to public safety.

Instead of implementing preventative measures that will reduce public spending in the long-run, the Conservative government adopts punitive, harmful policies that will cost us more.  

Instead of educating and informing the public about the truth behind addictions, harm reduction, and the benefits of such facilities, the Conservatives engage in a campaign of misinformation and fear-mongering built on simplistic one-liners.

They introduce a Bill that may make it nearly impossible to build another safe-injection site.   

The government surely knows that the law may not stand Charter scrutiny. But the Conservatives don’t care about that. They will push ahead with the Bill because it makes it sound like they care about (some) Canadians.  

But in doing so, the Harper government harms not only those with addictions, but all Canadians.  

In the process, and as an added bonus, the Conservative government also flips its finger at the highest court in the land.

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The Conservatives’ Push to Incarcerate the “Mentally Ill”

Say one thing, do the opposite.  That sums up the Canadian government’s approach to the treatment of the mentally ill in the criminal justice system.

“(I)ndividuals with mental health issues do not belong in prisons but rather in professional health facilities.”  Those were the promising words of the Minister of Public Safety, Vic Toews, in the House of Commons on Thursday, November 8, 2012.  He made this sweeping and dramatic claim in the wake of the release of the Ashley Smith videos, which portrayed her horrendous and inhumane treatment while she was in custody.

Toews’s comments might give an observer hope – hope that soon we will stop putting people with mental health problems in jails.

But in reality, the actions of the federal government lead to a different, bleaker conclusion, because every new criminal law and bill that has been introduced by the current government increases both the number and the length of the stay of mentally ill people in our prisons.

The most recent venture was announced on November 22, 2012.  In the new year, the Conservatives intend to introduce a bill that will ensure that persons who suffered from a major mental disorder at the time of the commission of a crime stay in custody longer.

In our courts, a person who is found to have been suffering from a major mental disorder at the time of the commission of the crime may be declared to be to be “not criminally responsible,” or NCR, by the courts if this person was unable to “appreciate the nature and quality of his actions” at the time of the offence.

People who are found NCR receive an indefinite sentence.  Once a bed in a mental health institution becomes available, then that person is transferred from a jail to that institution to serve their sentence while receiving treatment.  A panel of experts then annually reviews the inmate’s progress to determine if her mental illness is under control, and if it is safe to release her.

The Conservative government proposes to both decrease the frequency of these reviews and to change the standards so that it is harder to release a person, even if they are deemed safe.  As a result, people who have been found NCR but do not pose a threat will spend more time in the already scarce spaces of our mental health institutions.   That will mean more people with mental health illnesses will spend a longer period of time in jails, awaiting access to an overburdened mental health facility.

This proposal is directly aimed at people with mental health problems.  Despite that, it will not be the worst offender for putting the mentally ill in jail.  A string of other laws previously enacted by the current government have already exacerbated the situation.

Take, for example, the supposed “Truth in Sentencing Act” of 2009, which restricted a judge’s ability to give more than 1:1 credit for pre-trial custody when counting how much time a person should spend in jail upon conviction.  Before this legislation, lack of mental health services and unacceptably restrictive conditions in pre-trial detention (such as lengthy solitary confinement, prolonged and ongoing lock-downs, unavailability of doctors, therapists, or medication, and toilets overflowing in overcrowded cells) could be considered by a judge to reduce the amount of time a person ultimately serves in prisons.  The law, however, radically removed this discretion from judges, effectively forcing longer sentences on all people, including the mentally ill who, in the well-informed opinion of the judge, would be better rehabilitated in the community.

Worst yet are the mandatory minimum sentences, which came into force earlier in November of this year.  Mandatory minimums force judges to impose a minimum jail term, even where they might believe that a jail term or a lengthy jail term would be detrimental to a person’s mental health, his rehabilitation or reintegration.

And yet another law, which came into force on November 20, 2012, eliminates conditional sentences (also known as house arrest) for a wide range of offences, including non-violent ones such as theft over $5000.00, motor vehicle theft, and breaking and entering.

Conditional sentences have traditionally been used not only to reduce the high cost of imprisonment, but also as a valuable tool for enabling rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders, and as a means of keeping families whole, ensuring that people can continue their employment and to receive the kind of support that will improve their mental health.  The elimination of conditional sentences means that more people with mental health problems will stay in jail longer.

At anytime, 25-40% of the incarcerated population suffers from a mental disorder.  These health problems cannot and will not be remedied in jail.  On the contrary, the mental health of these people will often be more acute than before they entered state custody.  But our government ignores the victimization of the mentally ill and the cost to society, and persistently makes laws that incarcerate more people with mental health problems for lengthier periods of time.

Ultimately, our government says one thing when the spotlight is on the suffering of people with mental illness, and does quite the opposite when it comes to legislative action.

In other words, people with mental health issues may not belong in jail, but that’s where they’re going.

There is little to no logical connection between the government’s words and their actions.

They do not seem to appreciate the nature and consequences of their actions.

It seems that our legislators could use a good dose of medication and therapy.

But I won’t recommend jail.

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November 30, 2012 · 10:04 pm