Mr. Speaker, I rise today to lend my voice to the ongoing dialogue on Bill C-2, the respect for communities act.
Since Bill C-2 was introduced in the House of Commons, it has been the subject of much debate. Over the past few months, we have heard many different opinions about the proposed legislation. At the same time, there are aspects of the bill I believe we should now all agree on. They relate to the bill's contribution to maintaining public health and public safety in all of our communities.
As this is my first opportunity to speak about the bill, I will take some time to review the important points raised by the members of the House, the members of the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security, who led the consideration of this bill at committee stage, and the expert witnesses who were called before that committee to share their knowledge and views on the substance of this bill.
The health and safety of Canadians is something our government is committed to protecting and maintaining. It is an important issue, which we campaigned on. It is why Canadians elected this government and why we stand on this side of the House working to bring forward bills that allow us to do just that.
What is this bill about? In its decision regarding Insite in 2011, the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed the Minister of Health's discretion to grant or deny exemption applications and to request information for that purpose. In exercising her discretion, the Minister of Health must take into account public health and public safety considerations in accordance with the charter.
The Supreme Court of Canada decision also stated that the Minister of Health must consider evidence, if any, of the five following factors when assessing an exemption application related to activities at a supervised injection site: one, the impact of such a facility on crime rates; two, the local conditions indicating a need for such a supervised injection site; three, the regulatory structure in place to support the facility; four, the resources available to support its maintenance; and five, the expression of community support or opposition.
Why are supervised consumption sites considered to impact both public health and public safety? Let us look at what is actually at play when it comes to providing an application for an exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, or CDSA, for activities at a supervised consumption site.
As we have all heard, the CDSA controls activities involving controlled substances and precursors to minimize the risk of diversion to an illegal use. The CDSA and its regulations do, however, allow access to controlled substances for medical, scientific, and public interest purposes. One way the CDSA makes this possible is through exemptions under section 56 of the act. Section 56 provides the Minister of Health with the authority to grant an exemption from provisions of the CDSA for activities involving controlled substances.
Bill C-2 would amend section 56 to create a distinct regime for an exemption for activities involving illegal substances that are obtained on the streets and are then used in supervised injection sites. This is the reality of what is going on now, every day, at Insite. I hope we can all agree that a solid framework is needed when we are overseeing the use of street drugs in this way.
According to a 2008 report by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, supervised consumption sites are described as specialized facilities that provide injection drug users with sterile consumption equipment and “a clean, unhurried environment”. The clients frequenting these sites typically have a long history of drug use and drug abuse and often live on the margins of Canadian society, untouched by traditional health or social services.
It has been argued that these types of sites serve to meet the needs of those who use drugs by serving as a point of entry into health and social services. However, it is also important to remind listeners that the drugs used on the grounds of the facility are illegal and that these pre-obtained illegal drugs are acquired on the black market, usually from drug dealers and others who are exploiting the addictions of Canadians. This market presents obvious health and safety risks, so it is only right that the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act should lay out a framework to address this.
That is why the bill is clearly needed. The current system does not provide the tools needed to adequately consider the complex risks associated with supervised drug injection sites.
The respect for communities act would provide the minister of health with information needed to properly assess section 56 exemption applications and to balance public health and public safety considerations, in accordance with the charter.
To be more specific, the bill sets out the criteria that build upon the five factors set out by the Supreme Court of Canada. These criteria would provide clarity to the applicants on the type of information the minister would consider in an exemption application related to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
Given the serious risks to human health and public safety associated with illegal drugs, and given that substances obtained from illegal sources are known to contribute to organized crime, our government believes that exemptions to undertake activities with them should be granted only once rigorous criteria, identified in Bill C-2, have been addressed.
Under Bill C-2, the minister of health would continue to have responsibility for granting the exemptions. However, to provide clarity and transparency in the application process, the bill sets out the information requirements to inform these decisions.
I have looked at this very carefully through the lens of being both a former mayor of a small town and a health care practitioner. I believe that what the minister has created in the bill is a positive and appropriate framework for these decisions.
Bill C-2 specifically identifies the type of information the minister would need to support informed decision-making. It would ensure that the Minister of Health would have access to community perspectives from a broad range of relevant stakeholders so as to give consideration to the potential impact a site could have on a particular community. To take that local government perspective, they are often looking at zoning applications and uses for different pieces of property, and there are frequently very strong opinions on both sides. Again, it is the community that has the ability to express those opinions. The ability of people to express their opinions to help inform the decision-making is absolutely critical.
Applicants would have to provide a report on consultations with the licensing authorities for physicians and nurses as well as with local community groups. As well, letters of opinion would be required from, for example, provincial ministers of health and public safety, the head of the local police force, and the lead health professionals of the government of the province. These individuals would be consulted in their professional capacities so that the minister's decision could be informed by leading experts from the local area. These letters would contain their opinions on the proposed activities and any public health and public safety concerns they might have.
The applicant would need to provide a report outlining the views of these groups and describing how they would respond to any relevant concerns raised during the consultations. The applicant would also be required to describe proposed measures to address relevant concerns raised by the head of the local police force, the local government, and community groups.
Available information about crime and public nuisance, public use of illicit drugs, or inappropriately discarded drug-related litter, such as needles, would also have to be submitted, along with any law enforcement research or statistics on the subject.
In addition, to address the safety of individuals and communities, the applicants would need to provide a description of the potential impact of the proposed activities at the site on public safety. This would include available information on crime in the vicinity of the site and in the municipality and a description of measures to be taken to minimize the impacts.
Applicants would also be required to provide information on security measures, record keeping, and the establishment of procedures for the safe disposal of any controlled substances or the devices that facilitate their consumption. Criminal record checks for key employees would also need to be provided.
Members on the other side of the House have raised a variety of concerns regarding the proposed legislation and the information required to support an application for an exemption for activities conducted at a supervised consumption site.
I would like to point out that we need to balance the obligations being placed on applicants with the needs of the Canadian public, meaning the individuals, organizations, and businesses that would become the eventual neighbours of any supervised consumption site in their communities.
A typical and appropriate community process should happen at a local level. That is what this bill is about. It would set up clear parameters and would require a thorough consultation process to ensure that applications for these supervised drug-injection sites were thoroughly reviewed by local experts and community members as part of any decision.
Our government believes that it is important to give members of the public an opportunity to provide input into proposed activities that could impact their communities. That is why, under Bill C-2, the minister would also have the authority to post a notice of application for a 90-day public comment period to seek direct input from community members. It is not unlike a rezoning application, whereby a large sign is posted to inform everyone who is local that it will happen. It is part of the local community consultation process.
That is what I have found so surprising about the debate on this bill until now. The opposition members continue to delay and drag out the debate, when the single largest accomplishment of the bill is simply consultation with local communities. To be quite frank, to me it is incomprehensible. Members in this House need to pride themselves on local grassroots input, whether it is for an environmental assessment process or a rezoning, so I am surprised that there seems to be such resistance to providing what is normal due process in important decisions a community makes. I am pleased to see that we are making some progress on this today.
Consultations are not the only improvement contained in the bill. There are also important new clarifications that would be brought to the inspection regime to monitor these sites following their establishment. This would ensure that the government had the tools needed to monitor any injection site that may be established following the new consultation process.
One of Health Canada's responsibilities under the CDSA is to monitor the distribution of controlled substances and to inspect facilities, as needed, to verify compliance with the act, its regulations, and the terms and conditions of an exemption. This is done to minimize the risk of diversion and any negative impact on public safety. I do not think anyone should argue about the importance of having that measure in the bill. As someone who was responsible for a health centre, there were many different groups that had the ability to come in and monitor the work we were doing, whether it was on our work with controlled drugs and substances or the privacy commission. Again, these are appropriate and necessary safeguards.
The proposed legislation would amend the CDSA, which sets out the powers of inspectors. The amendments would provide authority for inspectors to enter supervised consumption sites for inspections to validate information on any exemption application received by Health Canada. These amendments would also authorize inspectors to enter a site for which an exemption was granted at any reasonable time to verify compliance with the terms and conditions of the exemption. Again, these are appropriate measures and safeguards that would be put in place. If the conditions of the exemption were not followed or the act or regulations were not complied with, there could be a danger to public health or safety, and an exemption could be revoked.
That brings us back to the real issue at play, which is the danger to public health and public safety. It is no secret that when illicit drug activities take root in neighbourhoods, the health and safety of individuals, families, and communities are put at risk. Illicit drugs that are bought and sold on the streets are inherently dangerous and present dangers in the communities in which they are found. For example, we know that the proceeds from the sale of illicit substances often contribute to organized crime, and the use of these substances can increase the risk of harm to health and safety, especially when these substances are unregulated and untested.
While a supervised consumption site aims to reduce the risk of illegal drug use, it is also important to keep in mind that no level of oversight can ever make illegal, untested street drugs completely safe.
That is why I also want to note that the bill will require applicants to provide information regarding the drug treatment facilities that may be associated with the injection site. I think all members of this House can agree that the true goal of the program designed to help those of us struggling with addictions is to end drug use in a safe way. That is what any of us would hope for family or friends fighting an addiction. It is only right to analyze the drug treatment facilities that are proposed and associated.
We often hear about safe injection sites being a pathway to treatment, to care. As someone involved in the health care business, I too frequently saw people who were desperate to have detox, to have rehabilitation, to have support with nothing being available to them. If this is to be a pathway to supporting people in their recovery, then it has to be associated with those pieces of the treatment puzzle.
Everyone in this House probably has family and friends who are aware of enormous dollars that have been spent to send their loved ones to treatment centres because there are no public options available as they were desperately struggling with recovery.
These changes are in line with our government's balanced approach to tackling illegal drug use in Canada. In 2007 we introduced a national anti-drug strategy. The strategy focuses on drug prevention and access to treatment for individuals who suffer from drug dependencies. It also focuses on combatting the production and distribution of illicit drugs by targeting drug dealers and producers who threaten the health and public safety of our communities, and more particularly important, of our youth.
One of the key components of the strategy is the enforcement action plan, which has increased the capacity of law enforcement to proactively target organized criminal activities. For example, under this plan, funding was provided to the RCMP to expand its dedicated anti-drug team to help locate, investigate and shut down organizations involved in the production and distribution of illicit drugs. Funding was also provided to enhance the capacity of the criminal justice system to investigate and prosecute offenders.
Through these and many other activities under the national anti-drug strategy, we have made great progress in helping to protect public health and safety.
To emphasize just how much the issues related to public health and public safety are intertwined, both the Minister of Health and the Minister of Public Safety appeared before the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security to address questions raised by members in their consideration of this bill.
During her testimony, the Minister of Health clearly stated that, “This legislation was not prepared overnight or on a whim”. It was “...drafted to specifically codify a detailed ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada in September 2011 on a supervised injection site”. As I have said, that ruling identified the specific factors the Minister of Health must consider when reviewing applications that grant exemptions from Canada's drug laws to allow such sites to be established.
There are many things I could say about the process. I know 20 minutes is a long time, but it can also be a short time. Most people in the House, I expect, have had families and friends who have struggled with addiction. We heard a very powerful statement yesterday from one of our colleagues. We are trying to create a balanced piece of legislation that will really, as I say, take care of the public safety issues, to look at the public health issues and respond to the Supreme Court of Canada decision.