DTES, elections, Human Rights, politics, Vancouver

How Vancouver’s supervised illegal drug injection site is winning the PR battle

Vancouver’s Insite is making headlines again as a new study shows it has slashed fatal overdoses in Canada’s poorest postal code. With the federal government’s appeal to be heard by the Supreme Court this May, the program’s future is once again in jeopardy. Here are my thoughts after visiting the controversial injection site.

Photos courtesy of Vancouver Coastal Health

After touring Insite this week it is clear the operators are doing their best to win over the hearts and minds of Canadians skeptical of the harm reduction approach to drug addiction.

First-time visitors immediately notice the cleanliness, professionalism and transparency of the supervised injection site. In the main room, stainless steel shelves form 12 open booths that together service up to 1,000 users a day. The smell of cleaning supplies wafts through the Spartan rooms as site manager Darwin Fisher holds court.

Fisher is passionate about giving the addicts of Canada’s poorest postal code a voice in their own recovery. This method of mitigating the harmful conditions surround their addiction, and then allowing them to get the treatment they need seems to be working.

A recent study released by the provincial health officer, Dr. Perry Kendall, pointed to harm reduction services like Insite as helping lower the rate of HIV infections among injection drug users.

In a news release about the report Kendall said, “The recent decline in new HIV cases is encouraging, especially since a significant decrease has been seen amongst vulnerable populations like those who use injectable drugs. This decrease is more proof that Highly Active Anti-retroviral Therapy and other harm reduction services are working and should be expanded.”

In fact, every empirical study of infection rates among the people in the Downtown Eastside has come out in favour of Insite and its work. When talking to the media, Fisher wields these numbers like a sword in the face of a federal government hell-bent on shutting the service down.

Insite is as transparent as an entity run by three separate bodies can be. It is this transparency and an emphasis on empirical data that has been more effective in swaying public and political opinion than any preaching about the horrible circumstances of these addicts ever could.

Most taxpayers do not want to hear about the sad tales of abuse and trauma that precede a person’s gradual descent into the hell of addiction. What is much more important is the amount of money it costs to get a person off the street and into treatment. The amount of money it costs to process and care for a person with a skin infection from shooting up in the dank, dark and dirty alleyways of the Downtown Eastside.

Concrete numbers about the amount of money it is saving taxpayers are the best way Insite can gain further support, and perhaps one day expand their brand of harm reduction nationwide.

It may be a callous way to reach out for support, but Insite’s advocates know its $3 million annual oprating budget is miniscule compared to the overalls of illegal drug use.

The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse found, in a 2002 study, abuse of illegal druges like heroin cost Canadians $8.2 billion annually. Along with alcohol and tobacco, illegal drug abuse cost taxpayers $8.8 billion in health care and $5.4 billion in policing this abuse.

Former mayor Larry Campbell helped get the initiative off the ground, and ever since these positive numbers have come in, civic and provincial politicians have taken note. Today, these politicians are loath to criticize Insite’s effectiveness in curbing infection and costly health problems in drug-addicted people.

Federally, things are much different. Initially the Martin government begrudgingly supported the facility, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper has fought tooth and nail to stop the money flow.

In order to fully understand the work of Insite, Harper should heed last year’s call of the B.C. Nurses’ Union and visit the facility himself.

Then, and only then, can he pass judgment on its role in Canadian society.

politics, Vancouver

Vancouver School Board juggles elementary schools before new buildings ready


A new UBC elementary school will occupy portables on the site of a neighbouring elementary school until its proper building is completed in August 2013.

The Vancouver School Board gave the go ahead, last Monday, for the new Acadia Road school to enroll students and at portable classrooms on the grounds of Queen Elizabeth elementary.

The new school is meant to stem the overflow of University Hill elementary students who currently take the daily bus to Queen Elizabeth, Queen Mary and Southlands schools.

“I think it will support parents in the district and work for both schools,” said school board trustee Ken Clement. “I like the fact that we listened to the parents too.”

During the board’s consultation process, concerned Queen Elizabeth parents voiced their frustration from sharing their grounds the past two years with Ecole Jules Quesnel.

Parent Advisory Council representatives from Queen Elizabeth presented the board with a number of grievances regarding a further two years of sharing space with another school.

Jane Taylor, a Queen Elizabeth mother, said problems have arisen due to the overcrowding and there exists an “unhealthy competition and lack of sense of community amongst the student body.”

The parents proposed an additional vice principal for the new school in order to act as a liaison between the two schools and help foster a unique school culture.

“I think that the school community raised some legitimate concerns around both
wanting to support the idea of the trying to develop a school community for the
Acadia students, but also the importance of the need of having an administrator
for those students,” said school board trustee Jane Bouey.

“At the same time, that administrator being a part of a wider administrative team at Queen Elizabeth. So there’s better communication and less chance of misunderstanding.”

School board trustee Allan Wong said regarding the parents’ additional requests “Most importantly the doors for dialogue and change continues. The other issues such as extra playground supervisors may be included in the upcoming budget process or any time later.”

Ecole Jules Quesnel has been undergoing seismic upgrades during this period, and will soon vacate the Queen Elizabeth portables so the new start-up school can move in this September.

Board officials are predicting a much smoother relationship between the two schools sharing the same playground, lunchroom and schoolgrounds.

“There’ll be far less numbers,” said Henry Ahking, manager of facilities and development. Though a concrete student numbers for the new school won’t be available till registration this September, some prospective students are expected to remain at the schools they now bus to, where they will be grandfathered into the existing population.

The Acadia Road school will include kindergarten students from the UBC area as well as new students and U Hill overflow students who choose to attend.

School overcrowding is not normally an issue at Vancouver schools, earlier this year the school board contemplated closing several Eastside schools with declining enrolments.

The school board’s plan to institute mandatory full-day kindergarten for every elementary school in Vancouver has only added to the stress that will be put on these schools in the coming year of sharing the facilities.

DPRK, North Korea, politics, reunification

>The Great Blight North #1

>Activists frequently set up shop in the center of Seoul’s main shopping district to decry the horrible human rights abuses perpetrated by a repressive regime against its seemingly peaceful citizens. Extrajudicial killings and wanton torture are all palpable in graphic colour photographs posted next to petitions urging help. Yet the call to action is not to fight Kim Jong-il and his henchmen, but the Chinese authorities for their persecution of Falun Gong practitioners!

Living here in the wealthy suburb of a relatively rich country – surrounded by the apex of consumer goods consumption – it is easy to lose sight of the fact that mere kilometers away lies one of the worst totalitarian dictatorships left on the planet. Movies like Children of the Secret State offer truly depressing portraits of what life is like for rural North Koreans not lucky enough to be part of the military cadre, yet the mainstream media in the South seem uninterested in publishing much more than the most recent diplomatic brinkmanship in the cat-and-mouse nuclear talks. Understandably, South Korean news agencies do not want to inflame tensions on the peninsula by sending in undercover reporters.

However, the media’s lens is tightly focused above the 38th parallel and as a result a clear lack of open dialogue and reflection exists in this country with regards to the North Korean question. How does President Lee Myung Bak’s hardline policy of engagement resonate with his compatriots? How do people here feel about reunification?

Funny you should ask, because this and many more questions will be answered in a new weekly post called “The Great Blight North.” These posts will aim to tell interesting stories and gauge the everyday citizen’s opinions on the North.

This week starts off with an short interview of Ginger, a thirty-something English recruiter who lives in Busan.

WaP: What is your earliest memory of North Korea or its people?

G: We were taught in elementary school that the communists are bad and I didn’t realize that it wasn’t a fair education for a long time.

WaP: Do you live in fear of the North attacking?
G: No, I don’t live in fear. But there were times that I got nervous but I don’t think they will attack without any warning.

WaP: Do you want re-unification?

G: Re-unification is ideal thing to happen but it’s not as ideal as it sounds I think. I’m hoping that we can go there just like we travel to other countries and all the divided families can meet their families in North freely.

WaP: How do you feel about the presence of American troops on the peninsula?
G: Well, I think it’s a necessary evil because we don’t spend as much money for military.

WaP: Is the “Sunshine Policy” the right way to engage North Korea?

G: I can’t say it’s right way but I like it better than Lee Myung Bak’s way.