Politics

Vaughn Palmer: NDP acts fast to end talk of drug-use site after backlash

How did this festering, no-win, trap-of-an-issue end up on the political agenda in Richmond in an election year?

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VICTORIA — Premier David Eby was ready with an answer when asked about this week’s blow-up at Richmond city council over establishing a supervised drug-consumption site.

“The discussion in Richmond is clearly about how any proposed site would operate, whether there would be impact on the community, and, in fact, whether what’s proposed is needed for the City of Richmond,” Eby said Tuesday.

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The controversy had been building long enough for opponents to have gathered 16,000 signatures on a petition opposed to a consumption site.

It burst into broader media awareness after a stormy meeting in Richmond council chamber on Monday night, where most of those who spoke were opposed to the proposal.

Staff in the premier’s office had already improved Eby’s understanding of the controversy by consulting the Vancouver Coastal Health authority. It would have oversight on the supervised consumption facility being proposed for Richmond General Hospital.

“My understanding is that they’re trying to get a better handle on why Richmond is bringing forward this proposal at this time, whether what’s proposed actually meets the needs in Richmond, because from their perspective this is not what is immediately needed in that city,” said Eby.

The premier packed a lot into that statement.

First, the health authority had already determined that the proposal was a non-starter: “This is not what is immediately needed in that city.”

Second, the government, through the health authority, was trying to figure out how this issue made it onto the council agenda “at this time.”

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In asking “why at this time,” Eby did not mean why this week or why this month.

Rather, how did this festering, no-win, trap-of-an-issue end up on the political agenda in Richmond in an election year?

For Richmond is a key community in the NDP’s re-election strategy, thanks to the party’s remarkable breakthrough in the 2020 provincial election.

Until then the city was a bulwark of support for the B.C. Liberal party, which swept every Richmond seat in seven successive elections going back to 1991.

But in 2020 the New Democrats wrested three of the four seats away from the Liberals.

Those three NDP rookies were now facing re-election and Eby was not about to let them be dragged into a career-limiting controversy over an unwanted and unneeded drug consumption site.

There things stood as of midday Tuesday.

The next act in this political drama played out over the next 24 hours or so.

On Tuesday night, after another stormy meeting, Richmond council voted 7 to 2 to continue exploring the pluses and minuses of establishing a supervised consumption site.

This did not mean the site would go ahead, as proponents, led by councillors Kash Heed (a former B.C. Liberal cabinet minister) and Laura Gillanders (who ran for the Greens in the last federal election), hastened to say.

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They can’t have been under any illusions about the political fallout. By most accounts they had to shout to make themselves heard over the angry crowd packed into the council chambers.

Plus their efforts appeared to have been rendered moot by midday Wednesday, when Vancouver Coastal Health confirmed what the premier had telegraphed the day before: “Based on the latest public health data, a stand-alone supervised consumption site is not the most appropriate service for those at risk of overdose in Richmond.”

There followed a five-part social media posting from Henry Yao, one of the three New Democrats representing Richmond in the legislature.

“Following last night’s vote at Richmond city council, the provincial health authority has indicated that a stand-alone safe consumption site will not be coming to Richmond,” Yao confirmed on his account on X. “Thank you to everyone who participated in this process respectfully.”

Setting aside that many who participated were anything but respectful, Yao went on to say that he’d been on the case all along.

“As your MLA, I have been working hard to ensure all perspectives are heard at the provincial level. The B.C. NDP believes that harm reduction saves lives and improves community safety,” the MLA continued.

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“However, we also believe that services must fit each community. The doctors and leaders at Vancouver Coastal Health Authority have examined it and have said that this approach is not right for Richmond.”

Yao took a shot at the council, for putting forward the proposal “without consultation with the provincial government.”

In closing, the Richmond South Centre MLA, vowed, “We will continue to work with the city to save lives and help those who need it, including by expanding access to drug treatment.”

It cannot have gone unnoticed by Yao or his colleagues in the NDP that one of the two members of council who voted against the supervised consumption site proposal was Alexa Loo.

She ran for the B.C. Liberals in Richmond South Centre in 2020. Yao defeated her by less than 200 votes of 13,000 votes cast in the closest of the three Richmond races won by the New Democrats.

No wonder he was relieved that the health authority has taken the supervised consumption site off the agenda, at least until after the election.

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