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Indie-rockers roll out support for safe injection site

 
BY SARAH BERMAN, MEGAPHONE MAGAZINE

Despite a cold and steady drizzle, a crowd some 4,000-strong gathered at the corner of Hastings and Main streets on December 6th for an outdoor concert in support of Insite, Canada’s sole safe-injection site.

Held on the date of Insite’s fifth anniversary, the music and barbecue’s mission was to demand that Stephen Harper’s recently prorogued government keep the site operating. Vancouver rock quintet Black Mountain and Bedouin Soundclash lead singer Jay Malinowski were there to perform right on Insite’s doorstep.

The indie-rockers and some local politicians took turns behind the microphone, both aiming to send a clear message to the federal government: Insite saves lives in the Downtown Eastside.

NDP MP Libby Davis was in attendance, along with Mayor Gregor Robertson and former mayor Sam Sullivan. Large banners flaunted the slogan “Play music, not politics,” while stilt-walkers and other street performers weaved through swarms of hipsters, activists and Downtown Eastside residents.

While politicians delivered scripted pledges to save the controversial program from impending closure, it seemed some of Insite’s closest followers were actually the musicians.

After the show, Black Mountain’s bassist, Matt Camirand, expressed his unwavering support for Insite.

“I strongly believe what they do helps people and saves lives,” he said.

Camirand has worked with the Portland Hotel Society (PHS), which operates Insite with Vancouver Coastal Health, for 10 years and says that the program’s effectiveness is obvious.

“I’ve seen somebody go under and that person would be dead if they were in an alley. All it takes is some oxygen and a mask.”

However, Camirand’s first-hand experience, backed though it is by the results of more than 22 peer-reviewed studies, isn’t enough to ensure Insite’s survival.

“There have been plenty of hurdles in terms of Harper’s government,” he said. “Every year is like a constant struggle to keep the doors open.”

It was important for the band to be a part of Saturday’s festivities, given that they are all so closely connected with PHS.

“We’ve been trying to do a show for about three years now,” Camirand explained.

Scheduling conflicts and a North American tour with Coldplay had put the event on hold. The concert was further delayed by permit issues and police intervention.

According to PHS executive director Mark Townsend, Bedouin Soundclash was originally booked to play on October 23rd but Vancouver police shut down the awareness-raising street party for not obtaining necessary city permits.

Although Townsend said the PHS applied for a permit, it was denied on account of a traffic bylaw.

“We were told we couldn’t shut down Hastings because it’s an arterial road,” he explained.

However, the second time proved to be a charm. With permits in hand, the afternoon event ran smoothly without incident. Townsend said over 2,000 burgers were handed out to hungry concert-goers. Camirand took time to reflect on the impressive turnout.

“We thought it would be more of a milling-around crowd,” he said. “Instead, we had a couple thousand people, all standing there and paying attention.”
Townsend was also surprised by the size and diversity of the audience.

“There were so many more people than I expected,” he said. “It was very peaceful, and different types of people were mixing together.”

For Camirand, the concert was a perfect conclusion to nine months of touring.

“I was just saying to the band over drinks: after a grueling tour, a free concert in the middle of Hastings Street seems perfectly fitting.”

During their set, Black Mountain announced that December 6th would be their last show for at least four months. In March, Camirand said he plans to tour Australia with the Pink Mountaintops. In the meantime, Camirand will return to his job with PHS.

“I’m going back to work for Portland,” he said, “just because I enjoy it… and it keeps me grounded.”

Published December 2008. Photo courtesy of Jay Black.

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