Mr. Speaker, it brings me no pleasure to have to speak to this bill, because it has to do with a crisis Canada is currently facing, the opioid crisis. The United States is also grappling with the same crisis, which has been the subject of many discussions.
Unfortunatley, Bill C-338 fails miserably in its approach. As the NDP public safety critic, I want to point out that the opioid crisis is not so much a public safety issue as it is a public health issue. It is important to make that distinction with respect to Bill C-338, since all it does is propose heavier penalties, like the infamous mandatory minimum sentences we saw so often when the Conservatives were in power. So far, anywhere you look around the world, mandatory minimums have failed completely in terms of their intended objective, that is, to put an end to the scourge facing our society.
Every policy, medical, and legal expert tells us the same thing: the solution to this crisis is to provide more mental health and addiction treatment services and more resources to the hardest-hit communities that are dealing with the consequences daily. For example, the mayor of Vancouver has had a lot to say about this, since the statistics coming out of British Columbia on the number of deaths caused by this crisis are terrifying, especially for a province in a country like Canada.
For nine years we had a Conservative government that said that the solution to drug trafficking and public health problems was to impose harsher sentences, the infamous mandatory minimums. Even in the American states that are commonly referred to as “red states”, where Republicans share many of the ideological opinions of our Conservative colleagues, it was determined that such sentences were a failure. This approach does not work, and it does not prevent the tragedies we are currently seeing.
To see why this is more a public health issue than a public safety one, we can look at supervised injection sites. All across Canada, especially in big cities that are grappling with this crisis and that want to protect citizens struggling with addiction issues, people have pushed for supervised injections sites and other solutions.
During the previous Parliament, the federal government kept plugging its community consultation line as an excuse to pass legislation making supervised injection sites even harder to set up, even though municipal and provincial elected officials representing those very communities were asking it to authorize them. Rather than solve the problem, the government created conditions that endangered public safety. People's lives were put at risk because they did not have the resources to get help if they were dying of an overdose in some alleyway. I do not want to get into too much detail here.
The Liberal government took way too long to move on this, but at least it moved, and while that is commendable, there is still more work to do. The member for Vancouver Kingsway, our health critic, represents one of the first provinces to face this problem, a region with some of the most terrifying opioid statistics of all.
He asked the question again today: when will this government recognize that this is a national health crisis and declare this to be a pan-Canadian crisis? This has yet to be done, even though it is such an easy step to take so as to ensure that governments could begin taking appropriate action to protect Canadians.
I would go so far as to say that for 30, 40, or even 50 years, the approach taken by the right in the war against drugs has always been to take aim at the criminal element. In the meantime, the ones who were truly forgotten were the Canadians who unfortunately are among these statistics and who lost their lives because we, the legislators, were unable to help them.
Having considered Bill C-388, we oppose it, because we believe that the solution does not lie in putting more resources into fighting crime and putting people in jail. The solution is to help them. We must help these people face their substance abuse problems. We must help those who suffer from a mental illness by ensuring that we provide the care they need and want. We must help protect these citizens.
If we want to discuss public safety, we must first discuss public health. That is what the crisis is about. That is what is being neglected in the approach set out in this bill, which, unfortunately, is similar to the approach that prevailed for many years, especially in the years when there was a majority Conservative government. It was a failure.
We are not the ones saying so. The statistics on recidivism and substance abuse are clear. Today's statistics on this problem indicate that this is not just happening in Vancouver, British Columbia. As people know all too well, this problem is unfortunately affecting the entire country. The problem is moving eastward and is starting to become a reality in the maritime provinces and Atlantic Canada. This should be unacceptable in a society such as ours.
Statistics aside, this is also a legal issue. The Supreme Court has found that minimum mandatory sentences are not going to help us prevent recidivism and protect Canadians. The most vulnerable victims of the opioid crisis and other crises related to drug use and drug trafficking are the users themselves.
The government says they are proposing legislation to protect victims and vulnerable populations, but in a drug crisis like this, the real victims, the real vulnerable population, are the Canadians dying from opioids before our very eyes. What this tells us is that, as I have said many times before, this is a public health issue.
Let us stop talking about how long we can put people in prison for. Let us stop thinking that rehabilitation is what is really going to help people recover from their mental health problems. Let us take their needs seriously, along with the needs identified by local authorities, such as the health and justice ministers in the provinces dealing with these tragedies, and municipal officials, such as the mayor of Vancouver, who is asking for help and more authority to develop tools like supervised injection sites to help these people start to heal. That is the approach we should be promoting.
I would like to close by saying that we have concerns about this approach. We recognize that it is a step in the right direction, but there is still a lot of work to be done to eliminate this problem, which is no longer just a regional issue. It is affecting all of Canada and even North America. These problems are being raised in discussions with American counterparts and between ministers. That proves that we need to take the issue seriously. Let us declare it to be a pan-Canadian health crisis. That would allow the government to do what is necessary. I have said it many times, and the NDP will continue to repeat it, that this is first and foremost a public health issue.
Let us help and protect these individuals, for they are the victims.