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Ostensibly, the article is a setup to Thursday's Supreme Court hearing over a safe injection site for abusers of illegal drugs in Vancouver. Now, the so-called Insite project in the squalid Downtown Eastside may be such a bad idea that there is good reason it's the only facility of its kind in North America.

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Topics: Journalism, Justice, Media, Health
Advocacy journalism May 10, 2011  |  By Peter Stockland
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Advance reporting on a critically important Supreme Court hearing is buried inside today's Globe and Mail. Thank goodness. The story under Globe justice reporter Kirk Makin's byline should rightly have been buried with a shovel rather than just tucked away on pages readers skim or skip entirely. Alternatively, it could have been shifted all the way back to the op-ed pages where those chancing upon it would be aware they're about to encounter heavy-duty advocacy journalism ahead.

Ostensibly, the article is a setup to Thursday's Supreme Court hearing over a safe injection site for abusers of illegal drugs in Vancouver. Now, the so-called Insite project in the squalid Downtown Eastside may be such a bad idea that there is good reason it's the only facility of its kind in North America. Or, Insite may be such a good idea that its proponents will soon be hailed as architects of a model of effective compassion for addicts.

But the case in front of the country's highest court is not intended to determine angels and idiots. It is a contest between the federal and B.C. governments over constitutional jurisdiction.

The province argues Insite constitutes health care and therefore comes under its legal purview. B.C. is entitled, they say, to spend tax money providing citizens a medically supervised place to ingest prohibited substances.

Ottawa, which appealed to the Supreme Court after B.C. courts rejected its case, insists illegal drugs are the concern of the federal Criminal Code. The criminal law cannot be ignored, it maintains, just by transmuting illegal conduct into medicine.

Without diminishing the suffering of those who seek help from Insite, the jurisdictional question is of infinitely greater importance for the whole country than the fate of one addiction management program. At its core is our respect for the rule of law and, as a natural complement, our commitment to the democratic process.

Indeed, the Globe story says both the federal and provincial legal teams acknowledge the constitutional stakes involved. Having made that clear, however, the piece then morphs wildly into a promotional vehicle for Insite as desirable social policy. Worse, it dismisses, through the devious device of paraphrasing supporters of the "right" side, the federal government's arguments as "constitutional niceties". Such niceties are deemed, again in paraphrase, an "unaffordable luxury" when addicts' lives are at stake.

Niceties? Luxuries? On the contrary, we are talking about the sine qua non of Canada's legal nature.

It is not nice to have our confederation's constitution respected. It is essential.

It is not a luxury to have the criminal law applied equally everywhere. It is foundational.

Precisely because of those essential, foundational conditions, social policy—good, bad or indifferent—can be crafted, applied, or altered through the democratic process.

But those conditions cannot survive under an onslaught of ad hoc actions that treat the rule of law as an obstacle to be circumvented through language games or as a triviality to be disregarded willy-nilly.

A good step in avoiding that fate would be for a responsible paper such as the Globe to stop shoveling advocacy journalism into its news pages, and then trying to hide the resulting mess.

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