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Dean Wilson, right, former president of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, and Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott embrace after she announced legislative changes to a law critics say was designed to block supervised injection sites from opening.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

The federal government will change a contentious piece of Harper-era legislation that critics say imposes undue barriers to opening new supervised injection sites.

Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott discussed the need for legislative changes to the Respect for Communities Act for the first time on Thursday during a visit to a fire hall in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. First responders, particularly in the East Vancouver neighbourhood, have seen call rates surge in recent years, due largely to a fentanyl-driven overdose crisis.

"I am working with my officials to make sure that we continue to make these sites available where necessary," Dr. Philpott said. "It increasingly looks like that will require legislative changes and we are actively working on a plan for the appropriate changes to be made."

There is no set time frame for the amendments, but the Health Minister said they would come as soon as possible.

"Any piece of legislation has to go through a certain number of steps before it's formalized, but I recognize that people are dying every day," she said. "We are committed to making sure we make these services available."

The Globe and Mail has reported on the act extensively. The previous Conservative government introduced it last year after fighting Insite, Vancouver's public, supervised injection site, all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, which sided with the Downtown Eastside facility.

The legislation includes more than two dozen requirements that prospective operators must meet, including holding extensive community consultations; collecting data and other information on crime, public nuisance and inappropriately discarded drug paraphernalia in the vicinity of the site; and conducting criminal-record checks for every staff member going back 10 years, which can prevent recovered addicts from being peer-support workers. Critics say it is a deliberate effort to curb all supervised injection sites.

The Liberal Health Minister, a physician, is a strong advocate of evidence-based treatment such as supervised injection sites, which curb the transmission of blood-borne illnesses by providing sterile injecting equipment and have nurses on hand to intervene should someone overdose.

However, Dr. Philpott had not signified any plans to amend or repeal the legislation until Thursday, saying only that her office was working with prospective site operators and that there should be no undue barriers. She acknowledged Thursday that the sheer volume of paperwork that must be submitted, and the fact that incomplete applications could not be considered, constituted some of those undue barriers.

Numerous health officials and politicians, including B.C.'s provincial health officer Perry Kendall, Health Minister Terry Lake and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, have called on Dr. Philpott to repeal the act. More than a handful of them, including Dr. Kendall and Mr. Lake, were at Thursday's event at the Downtown Eastside fire hall.

Fire Chief John McKearney, also present, said it only takes one stroll through the neighbourhood to see why supervised injection sites are needed. He was pleased to hear Dr. Philpott's comments about legislative changes.

"I think the Liberal government seems to be progressive thinking in this regard," he said. "The city's been after this for a long time."

Others expressed frustration that it has taken this long.

Libby Davies, who served as NDP MP for Vancouver East from 1997 to 2015 and continues to be a loud advocate for the Downtown Eastside, said it is "perplexing" that the matter is taking so long when it's been clear the act has served as an obstacle.

She noted it will still take time for changes to navigate their way through Parliament.

"[Dr. Philpott] won't get the support of the Conservatives – they'll fight it," Ms. Davies said. "So how long is that going to take? I do wonder what kind of ministerial discretion she could use in the meantime, because it is a health emergency."

More than 555 people have died of illicit drug overdoses in B.C. so far this year – the highest annual death toll in 30 years of record-keeping. Fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid being cut into a growing percentage of street drugs, was detected in about 60 per cent of those deaths. At the fire hall in the Downtown Eastside, call volumes have doubled since illicit fentanyl entered the picture several years ago.

Vancouver currently has the only two supervised injection sites in North America. VCH submitted applications for two more last month and has plans to apply for another three.