Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the excellent member for Vancouver East.
I thank the House for allowing me to speak today on Bill C-37, an act to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and to make related amendments to other acts. Before I get into the substance of Bill C-37, I would like to remind the House of some of the events that occurred before it was introduced.
In 2011, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the federal government must grant Vancouver's safe injection site, Insite, and other such sites section 56 exemptions under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act in order to uphold the fundamental right of all people to life and security. The Supreme Court added that safe injection sites will “decrease the risk of death and disease, and there is little or no evidence that [they] will have a negative impact on public safety”.
In response to this decision by Canada's highest court, the then Conservative government finally tabled Bill C-2 in 2015. With the thinly veiled intent of not allowing new supervised injection sites to open, the government put in place 26 conditions for obtaining a legal exemption, making it virtually impossible to open new centres.
As if that were not enough, the bill also gave discretionary power to the minister responsible to refuse to grant the legal exemption even if the 26 conditions were met. I always maintained that it would not be possible to obtain an exemption given the number of requirements already imposed by the law. However, this discretionary power proves that the Conservatives were not going to allow, under any circumstances, new centres to open.
I sat on the committee and heard witnesses, with supporting evidence, describe the benefits of injection sites, including harm reduction and public health, and tell us that public safety would not be jeopardized.
By refusing to consider clear and compelling evidence that supervised injection sites save the lives of many very vulnerable people, the Conservatives and their ideological approach only continued to marginalize and criminalize people suffering from addiction. This unfortunately also resulted in overdoses and deaths that could have been prevented.
A serious opioid crisis is plaguing the country, particularly the west coast, as my colleague, the member for Vancouver Kingsway, our health critic, has repeatedly stated here in the House.
In 2016, in British Columbia alone, opioid overdoses took the lives of 914 people, 80% more than in 2015. In April, the situation prompted B.C. public health authorities to declare a state of emergency for the first time in the province's history.
Although we do not have statistics for the number of overdose-related deaths in Canada, it is estimated to have been over 2,000 across the country in 2015. It is easy to imagine the death toll in 2016 being much higher because of the rapid spread of extremely powerful opioids across the country.
Overdoses and drug-related deaths are on the rise in every part of the country, and the crisis is expected to hit Ontario and Quebec this year. The opioid crisis in Canada is now officially out of control.
One of the main reasons the crisis is mounting is that fentanyl is cheap and easy to transport, and just a small amount can be used to make thousands of doses. Because this drug is so cheap, and because too few resources are invested in raising awareness and prevention, young and inexperienced users are overdosing. In many cases, they do not even know that there is fentanyl in the drug they are using.
In February 2016, when the crisis was emerging, the New Democratic Party called for the repeal of Bill C-2 to make it easier for organizations to get legal exemptions to open supervised consumption sites.
Last fall, the NDP got the Standing Committee on Health to study the opioid overdose crisis. In its report, the committee made 38 recommendations to the federal government.
We were also the first to request that a national public health emergency be declared in order to give the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada the authority to take extraordinary measures in order to coordinate a response to the opioid crisis, including the creation of injection sites on an emergency basis. Last December, after Bill C-37 was introduced, we also tried to have the bill fast-tracked in order to resolve the crisis as quickly as possible.
The Liberals say they support supervised injection sites, and yet their government has not approved a single new facility since coming to power. In fact, the Minister of Health initially argued that legislative changes to Bill C-2 were not even necessary, even though the real problem was with the bill itself, with its 26 separate requirements acting as effective barriers to any new sites, as had been pointed out by stakeholders and the NDP.
Faced with the growing crisis across the country and mounting pressure from stakeholders and the NDP, the Minister of Health finally gave in and, on December 12, 2016, introduced Bill C-37, which we are debating here today. Specifically, the bills seeks to simplify the process for applying for a legal exemption so that communities dealing with the opioid crisis can actually open supervised injection sites.
In the preamble, the bill states:
Whereas harm reduction is an important component of a comprehensive, compassionate and evidence-based drug policy that complements prevention, treatment and enforcement measures;
It is in the context of harm prevention that the City of Montreal and the public health authority officially submitted their application for legal exemption in May 2015 for three fixed services in three neighbourhoods and one mobile service. They are still awaiting. It is not surprising. Not a single supervised consumption site has opened in Canada since Bill C-2 was passed.
We are not the only ones calling for the government to move forward with implementing injection services. In summer 2015, the mayor of Montreal, Denis Coderre, who wanted to get moving on this by the fall, said the following to The Montreal Gazette.
“What are we waiting for? People are dying”.
One year later, in July 2016, Sterling Downey, municipal councillor and Project Montréal critic, asked the mayor a question:
“How do you go into the media and announce over a year ago that you're going to open these sites and back off and go radio silent?”
Then, concerned organizations also tired of waiting. Jean-François Mary, executive director of the Association québécoise pour la promotion de la santé des personnes utilisatrices de drogues, had this to say to the Montreal Gazette.
The organizations that are supposed to host the sites don’t even dare set opening dates anymore. We’re stuck in a grey area where, every year for the last three years, we’re told they’ll be open in the spring. But it doesn’t happen.”
We need to move forward quickly. Many groups, such as Anonyme and Dopamine in Montreal, have been waiting for too long to establish services that have been proven to save lives.
In the meantime, in Montreal alone, 70 people on average die every year as a result of drug overdoses. As I have already said, the crisis in western Canada will be coming to Quebec this year. Even without this crisis, and if only for the sake of harm reduction and public health, the services provided by supervised injection sites are vital.
In Montreal, 68% of injection drug users have hepatitis C. Opening these centres could do much to decrease the incidence of disease related to the use of syringes. Speaking of syringes, Hochelaga, the riding I represent, is the second largest area in Montreal after the downtown area, which has the largest number of injection drug users. A supervised injection site could help get needles out of parks where our children play.
I will support this bill in the hope that it will come into effect quickly.