Manitoba Government Ignores Evidence For Supervised Consumption Sites

By Thomas Linner,

For years, Manitoba’s network of community organizations and public health and harm reduction experts have made the case for the introduction of supervised consumption sites in Manitoba. There are evidence-based models of care that will work for Manitoba. In February of 2022, the Manitoba Harm Reduction Network issued a comprehensive document entitled Harm Reduction Services in Winnipeg: A Consolidating Report and Call to Action, which notes that “[i]n the past five years, a total of 15 reports and other documents have identified the need for increased harm reduction services for people experiencing problematic substance use, including the need for managed alcohol programs and supervised consumption services.” 

In short, the evidentiary case has been more than made. There is no longer any real controversy on the merits of supervised consumption sites, from a public health or community wellness perspective. What objection remains is a deeply ideological position which cannot point to any actual evidence to make its case.

Brian Pallister’s PC government was elected to office in 2016, just as the toxic drug supply crisis was beginning in Canada and across North America. During that time, the overdose crisis spiraled out of control. Despite recommendations of the government’s own Virgo Report, the Manitoba government has been hostile to harm reduction efforts in general and supervised consumption sites in particular: The Manitoba government ignored the evidence, hid recommendations and ignored community advocates, including the children’s advocate.

When Heather Stephason took over as Premier,  there was hope that the government’s position on harm reduction and safe consumption sites would change. In April of 2022 Sarah Guillemard, Manitoba’s Minister of Mental Health and Community Wellness, spoke positively about the potential for life-saving harm reduction measures:

I think if they’re used in conjunction with strong core services, there can be a place for [supervised consumption sites] — connecting those who are struggling with substance use with resources to help them to move away from the substances and more towards healing and healthy living.”

Such openness was a relief to advocates and activists who had worked so hard for so long, lobbying at both the municipal and provincial levels. So much so that in June the Manitoba Health Coalition, Moms Stop the Harm and the Manitoba Harm Reduction Network joined forces to, amongst other things, demand that responsibility for the toxic drug supply crisis be taken out of the hands of notoriously reactionary Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen and placed under Guillemard’s remit.

But then on October 31, over 80 community-based organizations signed on to an open letter organized by Sunshine House, Main Street Project and the Manitoba Harm Reduction Network (MHC was also a signatory). The letter called for  “immediate and robust actions that are grounded in human rights and a public health approach”, including the introduction of supervised consumption sites:

Manitoba has been in an overdose crisis due to a toxic drug supply since 2016. In 2021 the province had a record number of 407 deaths which is a rate of 30/100,000 Manitobans dying last year; an increase from 372 in 2020. Data suggests that even more Manitobans will die in 2022; current numbers for the first half of the year are over 250 deaths. This week alone, the community has seen an increase in deaths due to a toxic supply of drugs in Winnipeg; with the community reporting five deaths due to overdose in shelters and in the City of Winnipeg. This is not just an issue in Winnipeg, as communities in rural, remote, and Northern Manitoba are reaching out for support to address overdoses and overdose deaths in their communities; a single community reported 22 overdoses and nine deaths in a three-month period.” (*Emphasis added)

In response to media coverage of the open letter, the Manitoba government attempted to change the channel with a series of announcements regarding downtown safety, addictions funding and a tough-on-crime pronouncement that “enough is enough”. But despite these efforts the question of support for a supervised consumption site would not go away. 

Premier Stefanson settled on a bold line of argument and went on the offensive. She took to the airwaves to argue that California had used supervised consumption sites for decades and was only now moving to shut them down due to “unintended consequences”:

If you look down in California for example, they did have some of these sites – these supervised consumption sites – and they’ve reversed their decision there because of the unintended consequences”. 

I look at places like California that had these types of sites in place for decades, and they’re not working, It’s the unintended consequences of an increase in crime around these areas — we’ve seen that in other jurisdictions, and I don’t think we want to see that here, In California that’s exactly what happened … and that’s why they reversed their decision in those areas, and they’ve been doing this for decades.” 

So there are unintended consequences. If you look at other jurisdictions that have gone down that route, places like California that have had those around for decades, they started to reverse their decision on that because of the unintended consequences of those supervised consumption sites.” 

  • The Start, CJOB,  November 10

This was a disaster for the Premier and refuted by CBC (“Premier cites non-existent California supervised consumption sites in argument against Manitoba facilities”). For the record: California does not, and has never had, any authorized supervised consumption sites. In fact, California saw a 126% increase in overdose deaths from 2015 – 2011, from 4,615 in 2015 to a staggering 10,4016 in 2021. 

If Premier Stefanson had, in fact, studied the California overdose crisis she would have only been able to come to one conclusion: Governor Newson is wrong. California, like Manitoba, needs supervised consumption sites. The governor has relied on the same ideological, fear-based reasoning as the premier to deny at-risk communities the services they require to save lives.

Guillemard’s efforts were no more convincing. In a bizarre and exploitative Twitter thread on November 8, Guillemard describes a walk through East Hastings in Vancouver. The now-infamous news release issued late in the day on November 9 states: “On a walk through the Vancouver neighbourhoods of East Hastings this week, Guillemard witnessed various supervised consumption sites including people using drugs on sidewalks in front of the Insite supervised consumption facility.” Her story was later contradicted by BC government officials. The minister had never set foot in a facility, and in fact rejected the opportunity to do so.

Harm reduction in Manitoba is now in a waiting pattern. There is no factual debate. Having no good arguments for their position, the government is reduced to making up bad ones.

In 2023, the Manitoba Health Coalition will work with community organizations, families and advocates to ensure that people who use drugs are able to access the services and supports they need. We ask that Manitobans join us in this struggle.

Thomas Linner is the Provincial Director of the Manitoba Health Coalition, a non-profit, non-partisan advocacy organization dedicated to improving public health care in Manitoba.