SIMON NATTRASS: Restrictive policies continue to risk lives

In the distant memory of 1999, Judge Thomas Gove ruled that Victoria’s “Red Zone” policy violates Charter Rights..

In the distant memory of 1999, Judge Thomas Gove ruled that Victoria’s “Red Zone” policy prevented people from “carrying out normal social interaction with their peers” and accessing health services, violating their Charter Rights. Lawyers involved in the case prophesied doom for the practice of banning people from the Red Zone, an area bounded by Cook, Store, Belleville and Discovery streets. Surely, any policy which couldn’t survive a constitutional challenge was destined to fail.

It was almost a surprise when I was reminded by a local social service provider that members of The Capital’s street community continue to face exile from our downtown. Nor is this fate reserved for a few habitual trouble-makers — at least two recent operations carried out by the Victoria police resulted in many of those arrested being banned from the Red Zone.  Judges regularly choose exile as punishment for drug-related offences. The Vancouver Island Health Authority also enforces a semi-official no-go zone for the distribution of harm-reduction services. The zone encompasses a two-block radius around St. Andrew’s School — notably including the 900 block of Pandora — and prevents several organizations from distributing supplies such as clean needles within its borders.

VIHA’s no-go zone has serious implications for public health. According to a 2010 study by the Centre for Addictions Research BC, the policy resulted in a “substantial reduction in the level of health service delivery provided by AIDS Vancouver Island (AVI) and of clean needles, and has impacted their ability to meet the provincial policy of providing drug users with one clean needle for every injection.”

Like the Streets and Traffic Bylaw that prevents the street community from resting their bodies on Pandora Green, Red Zones and no-go zones do much more than force visible poverty out of the downtown core and into neighbourhoods. Policies that limit free movement and restrict access to social services only serve to deepen the impact of The Capital’s failure to secure a fixed-site needle exchange and safe-injection site.

Continuing to embrace the wildly anachronistic idea of exile as a form of punishment presents addicts and other street-involved people with an impossible choice: risk arrest in order to obtain food, shelter and clean needles, or risk your life to comply with a court order. M

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