Mr. Speaker, it is an honour to speak on behalf of the people of Nanaimo—Ladysmith, but this is certainly a hard story. I support the government's approach moving forward, but I want to talk about the impact in my immediate community, to describe the imperative of why action is so important.
Since 2008, Nanaimo has had more deaths per capita from drug overdoses than anywhere else in British Columbia. Our region had a 135% increase in opioid deaths last year, and fentanyl was present in 50% of overdoses. This is a national emergency. Our region has not had the action that we need on it and the federal government response has been unacceptably slow.
In October, at the health committee, I urged action of a study, which was initiated by an NDP motion by my colleague, the member for Vancouver Kingsway, that federal leadership was needed immediately to tackle the opioid overdose epidemic. I urged better access to Drug treatment programs and safe consumption sites, and support for health professionals, including addiction training. I urged that the government also create a national action plan on post-traumatic stress disorder for front-line emergency personnel and public safety officers in this vital line of work.
When I talk with firefighters in Nanaimo, they tell me they used to see three overdose calls a year. Now they see three a shift. These fine young men and women signed up to fight fires mostly. I want to read some of the words from Mike Rispin, one of the chiefs at the downtown Nanaimo fire department. He says:
In my 25 years as a fire fighter we have had periods when there was a sharp increase in opioid overdoses, due to a stronger drug on the streets. These periods lasted usually only a few weeks.
Sadly, the recent introduction of fentanyl has made our response to overdoses a regular occurrence and I can only foresee this as a regular ongoing issue...I...can only imagine what we will see with the use of carfentanil (which has been discovered in town now). We will be having even more O/D's and more difficulty bringing those patients back to consciousness.
Nanaimo is a small community of 90,000 but the overdoses we are seeing now is increasing dramatically. Thankfully the Island health authority has opened a safe injection site which should assist in reducing deaths from the use of opioids.
How did we get here? Opioid prescription rates are sky-high in Canada versus other countries. Our doctors over-prescribe, and that is because the pharmaceutical companies oversell.
Chronic pain is not managed well in our country. Some people are just left completely on their own and they do become drug-dependent because they are not getting the pain management support they need.
We also have, and we have seen this particularly in the riding of my colleague, the member for Vancouver East, childhood sexual abuse unrecognized, unreported, untreated. Gabor Maté, a doctor who has worked particularly in the Downtown Eastside, said every drug-addicted woman patient of his, every one of them, was a victim of childhood sexual abuse. This is the “hungry ghost” syndrome that he describes a psychic wound that cannot be healed, people turn to drugs.
Some communities were used as a test market for new drug ingredients. That certainly is our speculation about Nanaimo. Many people using illegal drugs are not aware that fentanyl is included in them and they get into terrible trouble.
In my community, I want to salute the many heros who have stepped up in the absence of provincial and federal leadership. They have saved a lot of lives, but it has been at a great personal cost to them. I am hugely grateful for their work. By supporting this bill, I hope we will get the support they need to do this very difficult job they have been given.
Another group that is such a hero in my community is AIDS Vancouver Island and the AVI Health Centre. Claire Dineen, the health promotion educator in Nanaimo, has led training for 800 people who are now trained in how to administer naloxone, which is the antidote to fentanyl. That woman has saved a lot of lives.
I also want to salute Dr. Paul Hasselback, who is the chief medical officer for the Vancouver Island Health Authority. People are very lucky to have a man like him in our riding. When I meet with him, he has both the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on his desk. That is a sign of a man who is fully integrated in his work and making change in our country. He wrote:
For the past four years, the riding that “you” represent has had rates of narcotic overdose fatalities that are some of the highest in the country....During this time close to one hundred of our neighbours, friends, and families have passed away from this preventable tragedy. In four years, overdoses have become a leading cause of preventable deaths in our community....an integrated approach to a community response has resulted in a much smaller increase in 2016 when compared to other BC communities. Action can save lives.
He went on in his letter to state:
When finally presented through actions of the province of BC with ways to implement overdose prevention sites where emergency response is available, the community has overwhelmingly embraced the service....Supervised consumption is to be recognized as a health service that can and should be provided in a variety of settings....We also need to look to the future and how to prevent drug addiction. Youth employment, affordable housing, meaningful community contributions are our best approach to engaging those that illicit drug predators would target as future consumers.
Action is needed now to mitigate this crisis, and needs to consider what could be done to reverse the recruitment of persons to experiment with potentially addictive drugs....While legislation is welcomed, it focused again predominantly on the enforcement side of the equation, permitting for harm reduction services. What actions will the federal government take in prevention and in facilitating treatment or at least research into effective treatment? What actions will the government take on engaging youth on drugs similar to past efforts to work on tobacco?
He finished by saying:
Family Day is a great day to remember that many of our friends and colleagues have personally been affected through a member of their family. I have many stories that I have heard that are gut wrenching efforts to help loved ones. There are also stories of success to be shared.
I have another success story from my riding. This is sent by a third-year biology student attending Vancouver Island University. He was one of the organizers of Vancouver's first unsanctioned supervised injection sites. When people were dying on the streets and we could not get provincial or federal support, Jeremy Kalicum and others took action, and he writes this description:
In short order, we established an unsanctioned supervised injection site equipped with harm reduction supplies, volunteer nurses, and naloxone. Our goal was to provide a judgment-free space that would allow people who use drugs to feel that their situation and struggles were not being ignored. Although people who use drugs were initially skeptical of our service they soon learned that we were not there to entrap them...[we] wanted them to be safe.
That facility is not operating now because the health authority opened a supervised injection site in the last few weeks.
I am proud that the New Democrats led the fight against the Conservatives' Bill C-2, which was absolutely damaging at the exact time we needed progressive action. I am glad the Liberals are bringing forward Bill C-37. It is overdue. We wanted it a year ago. We want the Liberals to call this a national emergency.
The war on drugs approach has clearly been a failure. Instead of stigmatizing and punishing Canadians who are suffering from substance abuse disorders, it is time for bold and compassionate leadership from the federal government. We need to rapidly expand proven harm reduction approaches, while making significant long-term investments in prevention and public addiction treatments of all kinds.
I urge Parliament to vote in favour of Bill C-37. I urge the government to accelerate its action in some of the other areas that New Democrats have identified, to view drug addiction as a health issue, and, most important right now, to send our thanks and support to the front-line responders who fill a tremendous gap in a time of true national emergency.