Tony Clement certainly has had an active term as federal health minister.
He was openly criticized late last year for his involvement in what many saw as government mismanagement of a precarious nuclear reactor west of Ottawa. He was also taken to task for lobbying Democratic Party members at their August convention in Denver during the listeriosis outbreak that killed over a dozen Canadians.
But while he directed health policy for two and a half years, Clement also tweaked several policies that sparked concern in the gay and lesbian community.
Last December, Health Canada determined that gay men can’t donate organs if they have had sex — even once — in the last five years.
At an international AIDS conference last month, Canadian advocacy groups confronted Clement about a lack of federal investment in their work. Monique Doolittle-Romas of the Canadian AIDS Society estimated that funding is $12 million below levels set out in a national strategy to combat the disease adopted by the feds in 2006.
Clement addressed the Canadian Medical Association’s (CMA) annual conference in Toronto on Aug 18. He devoted most of the speech to his opposition to Canada’s only supervised injection site: Insite, a facility in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The CMA had recently expressed support for the site, and Clement sought to outline his government’s position.
In May, Clement signalled the government’s intention to appeal a B.C. Supreme Court decision to extend a constitutional exemption from Canada’s drug laws to Insite.
The health minister meticulously outlined the Conservatives’ refusal to believe that the site’s purported usefulness as a harm reduction tool was backed up by science.
“While I support various aspects of harm reduction, I believe we have to draw the line somewhere with regard to these kinds of measures,” he told the room full of doctors.
The evidence suggests, Clement insisted, that Insite’s benefit to society is at best inconclusive. He acknowledged that “over 20 studies” exist that prove Insite helps its users, but still emphasized the doubts Simon Fraser researcher Garth Davies expressed about the reliability of such studies.
“Given this acknowledged lack of evidence, the value of supervised injection over treatment programs leading to full recovery remains to this day questionable,” Clement concluded.
Clement also expressed concern about the ethics of doctors and nurses who support such a facility. Clement didn’t advocate for Insite’s closure, but only if it changed its ways.
“I want to make clear that I do not support the closure of Insite as a centre that provides services to addicts,” he said. “I would prefer that it remain open, with a changed mandate of prevention and treatment instead of drug maintenance.”
At the time, Clement took a lot of heat for his speech to the CMA. Editorial boards condemned his government’s position on Insite and his berating of doctors while opposition parties defended safe-injection sites.