3 min

Tony Clement: Public Health Enemy #1

Burn, baby, burn

Which do you care about more — politics or people’s health? If you’re Canada’s Minister of Health, Tony Clement, the answer is clearly the former. His bull-headed insistence on fighting the Insite safer-injection site is only the most recent example. By consistently making decisions based on his ideological affiliations, Clement is quickly shaping up as Public Health Enemy #1.

I sensed this problem viscerally when I witnessed Clement’s participation in the International AIDS Conference in 2006. I attended a vigil recognizing the lives lost in struggle with HIV/AIDS that was part of the conference, in Toronto’s Dundas Square. Clement was present at the event in place of Steve “No Show” Harper. Each speaker spoke to acknowledge a particular group of people who had been affected by HIV. Clement spoke for people with hemophilia.

A safe choice. The one group considered by the mainstream to be the only “innocent victims” when it comes to HIV infection. The same group whose national advocacy organization is fighting to maintain the Canadian Blood Services policy keeping any man who’s had homosexual sex once since 1977 out of the blood pool. Should I have expected Clement to align himself with men who have sex with men, with sex workers, with drug users? No, I don’t think so.

Clement has shown himself to be a loser several times over — in 2002, he lost the race to succeed Mike “Common Sense” Harris as leader of the Ontario Tories and in 2004 he failed in his bid to lead the federal Conservatives as well. After his first unsuccessful attempt to get into the House of Commons, he squeaked in to the riding of Parry Sound-Muskoka, winning by a mere 28 votes.

Hardly a vote of confidence for someone now using his beliefs to try and shut down services like Insite that prevent infections and deaths. Why? Drug users are bad. They don’t deserve help that actually works. If they want to avoid HIV and hepatitis C and endocarditis and overdose and death, the sensible choice is clear: stop using drugs. Right?

Things aren’t that simple. Some people don’t want to quit drugs and never will — because a temporary high is their only distraction from not having a place to live. And some people who want to quit drugs can’t — or they can’t immediately.

Some people access drug treatment services and still relapse multiple times no matter how committed they are — especially if the basic foundation of housing, a steady income, social and support networks, freedom from violence, literacy and other things many of us take from granted are missing from their lives. Harm reduction — clean needles, health advice, medical care, access to counselling, a safe place to use — can keep people alive until they are capable of ceasing drug use that they want to stop.

Clement’s colleagues fare little better. Look at Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day, who ended a project to promote safer tattooing in Canadian prisons, which has been proven to reduce the risk of transmitting HIV and Hepatitis C. Disdain for people in prison and the Tories’ punitive law-and-order agenda are more important to Day than saving lives.

“Our government will not spend taxpayers’ money on providing tattoos for convicted criminals,” he told media in Dec 2006. Why? Prisoners are bad. They don’t deserve help. They did the crime and now they have to do the time, and whatever happens then is their own problem. Again, this is a fantasy, especially when so many people are in jail because of misguided drug-enforcement that adds to harm and reduces the likelihood of health, recovery and public safety.

The fight for Insite is one face of post-millennial AIDS activism — with a key difference. In the eighties, the struggle for HIV treatment and against human-rights abuses was a lonely one — with gay men and other disenfranchised groups tackling large bureaucratic forces with very little public sympathy.

That fight changed the way we look at health care. As a result — even though many drug users are far more disenfranchised than most gay men — today there is broad-based support for safer-injection facilities among the press, the public, politicians and the medical and scientific communities.

As these groups band together to point out Clement’s deadly folly, we can look to the history of the AIDS activist movement for inspiration. Almost 20 years ago, demonstrators at the 1988 International AIDS Conference in Montreal were so incensed with then-Tory Health Minister Jake Epps’s inaction on HIV that they burned him in effigy. The government’s embarrassment at the protest’s high media profile led to a quick announcement of new funds for support and research.

I think it’s time to get the matchsticks out again.