Mr. Speaker, I am very proud to rise today in support of Bill C-37. We have a national public health crisis in Canada right now. Last year, in British Columbia alone, more than 900 people died from drug overdoses, an increase of over 80% from the previous year, and the situation is getting worse. Deaths from drug overdoses, including fentanyl and carfentanil, are now predicted to exceed deaths by car accidents. Thousands have died, and thousands more will die unless we, as parliamentarians, take decisive action. Bill C-37 represents decisive action.
This bill would address our public health crisis and help save lives in a few important ways. It would simplify and streamline the application process for communities that wish to open supervised consumption sites to limit drug overdoses. It would put stronger measures in place to stop the flow of illegal drugs into our communities.
Bill C-37 represents a vitally important step and necessary shift in the treatment of drug addiction from a framework of punishment and strict law enforcement, practised by the previous government, to one focused on health care and based on scientific evidence.
I am proud to support this bill on behalf of my constituents in Parkdale—High Park. The care and compassion of the people in my community, coupled with their political engagement and depth of knowledge on these issues, has translated into overwhelming support for a shift in how we treat people experiencing drug addiction. My constituents want a federal government that responds to health crises, like the tragic deaths of thousands of Canadians from accidental opioid overdoses in 2016, with a compassionate strategy based on evidence, not the knee-jerk ideological responses that characterized the previous government's zero tolerance approach.
This past July in Toronto, the city where I live and serve the people of Parkdale—High Park, city council approved plans for three future safe consumption sites. In Toronto, there are already 50 such locations that offer harm reduction services and access to clean syringes and needles, including the Parkdale Community Health Centre and the Breakaway Addiction Services Satellite clinic in my riding. Both of these organizations provide an invaluable service in my community. They help save lives in Parkdale—High Park by treating addicts with care and compassion, not punishment and stigma.
Bill C-37 would help by expanding the harm reduction network that already exists in my community and across the city of Toronto.
I want to explore the idea of harm reduction a little more. At its core, the principle of harm reduction is about taking a realistic approach to drug use and addiction and thinking practically and respectfully about the best options for treatment. As we all know in this chamber, drug addicts do not desire or choose to continue using substances that put them at risk of harm. Addiction is a brain disorder; it is not a choice.
People experiencing addiction compulsively engage with rewarding stimuli, despite the harm it does to their health, their relationships, and their very lives. While prevention and treatment are the central pillars of any drug strategy, we acknowledge, on this side of the House, the reality that people who are experiencing addiction will use drugs for a period of time until they are in treatment.
Harm reduction strategies and treatment goals are not incompatible. To the contrary, they are actually mutually reinforcing. Harm reduction strategies assist by helping to keep addicts alive and moving them toward treatment. Harm reduction strategies are the best alternative for people for whom prevention or criminal sanctions have not been effective. Harm reduction does not mean that we are giving up on these people or enabling them to use. It is quite the opposite. Through harm reduction, we are refusing to give up on these very people. We are refusing to let them die.
The contrast to harm reduction initiatives are the zero tolerance policies favoured by the previous government. Zero tolerance policies aimed at criminalizing addicts do not work. We have seen the negative effects of these strategies on marginalized communities, especially among those who are over-incarcerated, like the indigenous and black communities. We have seen the negative stigma. We have seen misinformation based on anecdotes instead of scientific facts about drug addiction. People who are suffering from a condition they cannot control are treated as criminals instead of patients. This is fundamentally the wrong approach.
By contrast, harm reduction not only serves individuals affected by their own addiction but helps friends and families of addicts, and society as a whole. When we stop pushing addicts out onto the street and into alleyways, our communities become safer. When we provide a safe space for consumption, equipped with medical professionals, parents of addicts do not have to bury their children. When we shift our narrative to focus on providing health care for Canadians afflicted with a difficult condition, our society, as a whole, begins to heal.
This basic idea that harm reduction, in the form of safe, supervised consumption sites, can promote public health and safety was recognized by the Supreme Court in the Insite case.
With members' indulgence, I am going to put on my constitutional lawyer hat for a moment and discuss the Vancouver safe injection site that was at issue in the Insite case. I will not go into all the details, much as I would love to, but it is important to note that, in short, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously found in that case that the denial of a ministerial exemption by the previous government under the Controlled Drug and Substances Act was a violation of the charter, specifically the section 7 right to life and security of the person of Insite's clients. The Supreme Court, by way of remedy, unilaterally reinstated the exemption, allowing Insite's doors to remain open so the facility could continue to prevent unnecessary deaths on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
The previous government's response to that decision, after some negative reaction on the part of the previous government, was to ramp up the number of conditions that had to be met for supervised consumption sites to be permitted to operate.
The government cannot do through the back door what it is not permitted to do constitutionally through the front door. The old Bill C-2, which is called, and we know the Conservatives had a penchant for these catchy names, the Respect for Communities Act, was an ideological response, not one based on evidence. It prompted observers, like the HIV/AIDS Legal Network, to note:
...Bill C-2, imposed near-insurmountable obstacles for supervised consumption services (SCS), such as Insite in Vancouver, despite ample evidence of the benefits of these health interventions. Not only have [supervised consumption sites] been shown to save lives, they are also cost-effective, as revealed by a new study conducted by the Toronto-based St. Michael's Hospital
If the members opposite want evidence of that study, I am happy to provide it.
We have heard such critiques, and we have responded as a government. Through Bill C-37, our government is taking the number of criteria that must be met to open a supervised site from 26 conditions, which to my mind is not intensive community involvement but is actually a barrier to providing authorization, and reducing it to five. We did not just dream up this list. We are using the very five criteria entrenched in paragraph 153 of the Supreme Court's unanimous decision, lest we be accused of perhaps not taking community consultation seriously, as some of the members opposite have opined.
Through Bill C-37, our government has responded to calls for a change in the legislation from organizations and people on the front lines who care for and treat drug addicts. They see the negative impact of a system imbalanced between public safety and public health.
Criticism of the bill has suggested that the government's new approach would turn society into an enabler of drug addiction, as opposed to a preventer. On the contrary, we will not stand idly by and enable Canadians to fatally overdose because we failed to act to provide them with safe spaces to receive health treatment.
We will prevent more people from dying by shifting our approach from criminalization to treatment with compassion. While we are shifting our approach, we are not diminishing the ability of law enforcement and the criminal justice system to enforce the law. We are shifting the treatment of addicts from punishment to treatment by treating addiction as a health issue. Critics of the bill forget that we are also increasing law enforcement's ability to prevent illegal substances from making it onto Canadian streets with changes to the Customs Act.
Bill C-37 would also further reinforce the commitment to consult with communities before making decisions that would directly impact them, such as the opening of safe consumption sites. Law enforcement, first responders, business owners, and residents down the street would all be consulted before the health minister delivered an evidence-based decision.
This bill is not revolutionary. We heard this in some of the earlier speeches. There are already over 90 safe consumption sites operating effectively worldwide, including two sites right here in Canada. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health has completed extensive research, in collaboration with other prevention programs, on the effectiveness of harm reduction. Researchers discuss drug addition as a continuum, “where harm may occur at any level”.
Drug addiction is not black and white. It is not an all-or-nothing disease. If we continue to impose the rigid standards of Bill C-2, passed by the previous government, we will continue to deny communities and addicts the help, support, and life-saving services they desperately need and deserve. Balancing public safety and public health is not easy, but I am confident that Bill C-37 would help do just that. I am very proud to support legislation that puts the health and safety of Canadians at the forefront of our strategy, and I urge all members of the House to do the same.