Canada
5 min

Hating the homeless

When words become deeds

“I hate fucking bums…. I’m gonna take them on.” And he did, with the help of some friends.

That drunken rant spewed from the lips of Private Brian Deganis in the early hours of August 31, 2005, according to court testimony late last month. Hours after he said those words, a defenceless old man flat-lined in hospital after suffering from a ruptured spleen, fractured ribs, upper-body damage and severe brain injuries.

That man was 59-year-old Paul Croutch, a former newspaperman who struggled with mental illness for years and had no place to live. In the middle of the night, he curled up on a bench in the park near Toronto’s Moss Park Armoury. The bench was the kind with a metal bar in the centre, designed to deter people from laying down. Still he managed to sprawl across it somehow, swaddled in garbage bags to protect himself from the rain.

While he lay unconscious, Croutch was kicked to death by Deganis and Corporal Jeffrey Hall. They used so much force that Croutch’s body was launched over the bench and fell behind it. By the time Deganis and Hall were joined by Mountaz “Taz” Ibrahim — a fellow member of the Queen’s Own Rifles — the three Army reservists were caught in the act.

Valerie Valen saw them. The butch woman was passing through the park on the way to the Fred Victor Centre, a low-income housing agency across the street from the armoury, looking for a sex worker friend of hers.

When she confronted the attackers and threatened to call 911, they abandoned Croutch’s limp body and began to punch, kick and trip Valen. At first they took her for a man but even after they realized their mistake, they kept up the relentless assault. “Doesn’t matter; it’s a dyke anyway,” said Hall. Deganis waved his military dog-tags in her face and screamed, “this gives us the right to kill all the homeless bums, crackheads [and] whores,” according to Valen’s testimony.

That testimony was sufficient to convict Deganis and Hall of manslaughter charges, and Ibrahim of being an accessory after the fact. Now Valen is suing the men and the Canadian Armed Forces for 2.5 million dollars, on behalf of her herself, her same-sex partner and her son, seeking damages for the assault and battery, negligence and infliction of nervous shock. I hope she wins.

This case reveals a disgusting sense of entitlement and shocking brutality among these militiamen. It also highlights the fact queer folks include low-income and street-involved people. If you are looking for dyke role models, forget about The L Word — and remember Valerie Valen.

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Manitoba mistake

Manitoba legislators are poised to force people to get tested for HIV and hand over the results. The Testing of Bodily Fluids and Disclosure Act — introduced earlier this month by the province’s health minister Theresa Oswald — is supposed to protect first responders such as paramedics, or anyone else who offers first aid to an injured person.

According to a Winnipeg Free Press report, the legislation would allow someone to apply for a judicial blood-testing order if they believe they’ve been exposed to a blood-borne disease, such as HIV or hepatitis.

A health minister should know better. Oswald claims this bill would provide “peace of mind” to emergency workers — but the law would offer little protection at too great a human-rights cost.

The best way to show respect for the efforts of first responders and healthcare professionals — and demonstrate genuine dedication to their health and safety — is to provide education about the actual risks, and implement safeguards to reduce those risks.

Workplace exposure to HIV is not impossible — but the real risk is dramatically low. So much so, there has only been one confirmed case in Canada over the past twenty-five years. According to the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, practical things that would actually offer protection against occupational exposure include needles with safety features that reduce the possibility of needlestick injuries, Kevlar-lined gloves for police officers and proper containers for the disposal of sharp implements.

And if there is a genuine risk of HIV exposure, a person can take a one-month course of treatment called post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), which is believed to greatly reduce any likelihood of infection.

If someone’s broken skin, mucus membranes or internal tissues have clearly been exposed to someone else’s blood, they should get PEP. If not, they likely shouldn’t. Some paramedics have argued they need the other person’s test results to determine if PEP is needed. That’s a mistake.

A potentially exposed person needs to go on PEP almost immediately, within mere hours after the risky incident. Forcing a test and awaiting the results means too much delay. And a negative test result could offer false reassurance, because of the window period before HIV is detectible.

Forced testing offers no benefit in the case of diseases like hepatitis either. All health workers should be vaccinated against Hep B and there is no preventative treatment for Hep C, so there is no benefit to knowing if the potential source person has it. On the other hand, when someone’s HIV status is exposed to others unnecessarily, the risks can be unpredictable and life-changing.

We may imagine times have changed, but according to a survey by the Public Health Association of Canada, “20 percent of Canadians do not believe in supporting the rights of people with HIV/AIDS” — and many people would wrongly avoid even casual contact with someone HIV-positive. So people living with the virus have every right to be wary of human-rights abuses and undeserved mistreatment.

Let’s show the life-saving efforts of professionals dedicated to our health and safety — and well as the rights, security and well-being of people with HIV — the concern, appreciation and respect that they all deserve.

For more information, see the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network’s excellent primer on forced HIV testing.

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No Shortage of Insite

Even though it’s a small-scale trial project operating at capacity, Vancouver’s safer-injection facility Insite already saves at least one life a year by preventing overdoses, according to the expert advisory committee established by Health Canada.

The Tory government released the expert committee’s report earlier this month — after 5pm on a Friday afternoon with little fanfare. The report notes the facility gets high marks from users and that the general public has a positive view of Insite as well. The safer injection site has improved public disorder, served as a gateway to drug treatment, and reduced users’ risk behaviours when it comes to HIV transmission. But it remains to be seen if all the good grades will be enough to keep Health Minister Tony Clement — an outspoken enemy of drug-related harm reduction — from axing the service when its current operating permit expires at the end of June.

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If you’d like to know more about the health struggles faced by drugs users in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, I highly recommend Nettie Wild’s documentary Bevel Up: Drugs, Users and Outreach Nursing, which just had its world premiere at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival. For more information, see www.bevelup.com

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Was Paul Croutch’s murder a random incident? How can we best protect health and safety professionals from on the job risks? Do we need to toss out the Tories before Insite’s exemption expires in June? Share your comments here.