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Canada’s Health Minister Tony Clement embarrassed himself - and, by extension, Canada - at the XVII International AIDS Conference in Mexico City on Tuesday by publicly denouncing Insite, Vancouver’s internationally-lauded safe injection site.

For Gerry Lavallée, co-chair of CUPE’s Pink Triangle Committee, it was the first time he was embarrassed to be a Canadian abroad. “Here I am with a nametag that screams “CANADIAN” in bold letters. Normally I’d be very proud of that.  But tonight I’m ashamed.  Ashamed that our Canadian Minister of Health, Tony Clement, decided that on this day, on this world stage, he was going to open his mouth and firmly stick both feet into it.”

Lavallée, of CUPE local 4092 in Toronto, and Roger Procyk, a Winnipeg community healthcare worker and President of CUPE local 2348, are representing CUPE at the conference.

Clement explained in an interview in Mexico City that “it’s not my job to kowtow to orthodoxy.” Instead, Clement is thinking outside the box by favouring social conservatism over hard scientific evidence that says the Insite model prevents overdoses and the spread of HIV while keeping healthcare and law-enforcement budgets down.

Safe injection sites are also strongly endorsed by the World Health Organization and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) as an effective harm-reduction measure. In a guide released earlier this week, the WHO identified safe injection sites like Insite as “priority interventions” to help slow the spread of HIV.

“The WHO of course was mortified because Clement was supposed to
be there to support their position,” says Lavallée. “So what does our Minister do?  He holds a press conference and says ‘allowing and/or encouraging people to inject heroin into their veins is not harm reduction, it is the opposite. We believe it is a form of harm addition.’”

“By ‘we’ is he speaking for all Canadians?”

Lavallée and Procyk hope that other Canadians at the convention can make it clear that Clement is not speaking for the rest country.

In fact, argues Procyk, many Canadians support Insite. “Though the location is in Vancouver, the people who need and use its services are from all across Canada; their families and friends are glad it is there as a beacon of hope and support.”