May 10, 2011
Canada's Supreme Court this week will preside over the case that will decide the fate of the supervised-injection facility Insite in Vancouver. The court will hear testimony as to whether Insite is a health care provider operating under the jurisdiction of the provincial government, and whether shuttering the site violates the rights of drug users in Vancouver's impoverished Downtown Eastside.
"Many people are watching this closely to see how well the social interests of these individuals are going to be acknowledged and recognized at the Supreme Court of Canada," explained University of British Columbia law professor Margot Young. "It's easy to get caught up in the intricacies of arcane constitutional arguments, but the case is really about real people who are in need and who are among the most neglected groups in Canadian society."
Insite opened in 2003 in response to an epidemic of overdose deaths in Downtown Eastside, operating with an exemption from federal drug laws. Presciently worried that the new ruling Conservative government would order the site closed, the Portland Hotel Society, which runs the facility with funding from the province, asked a B.C. judge to allow it to remain open under provincial jurisdiction. The B.C. Court of Appeal upheld a ruling in favor of that request.
The federal government argues that British Columbia and Insite are asking the court to create an "extraordinary" health care exemption in Canada's criminal law. In cases where two levels of government are claiming jurisdiction, the federal government should be given priority, it says.
The B.C. government cites the "interjurisdictional immunity" principle, by which the federal government cannot encroach on the province's core role of providing health care. Further, Insite is protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it says. Closing the site would violate drug users' rights to life, liberty, and security since they would be at greater risk of a fatal overdose, the province says.