Vancouver Kingsway, BC
Madam Speaker, for any Canadians who are watching, I am glad that they can see that the Liberal Party, the New Democratic Party, the Green Party, and I am not sure about the Bloc, are willing and ready to move quickly on this legislation and not sit here and debate and slow down legislation when Canadians are dying every day.
It has been well established that Canada is currently in the grips of an unprecedented national public health emergency. I am glad to hear both my Liberal and Conservative colleagues increasingly using that term to describe the opioid crisis. The New Democratic Party started using the term back in November, and that is because this is a national public health emergency and our fellow Canadians are suffering and dying every single day.
Fifty Canadians are dying every week from opioid overdoses in this country. That is a national crisis. It also bears repeating that this crisis has become dramatically worse in recent months.
In 2016, in my home province of British Columbia alone, there were 914 drug overdose deaths. That is an 80% increase from the year before. In December, just a couple of months ago, we recorded the highest number of overdose deaths in B.C.'s history with 142 lives lost. That is more than double the monthly average of overdose deaths since 2015 and a sharp increase over September, October, and November. There were 57 overdose deaths in B.C. in September, 67 in October, 128 in November, and 142 in December. I can only guess that the number will be even higher for January. While the Conservatives want us to debate and consult, New Democrats want to act and save lives.
In December, the B.C. Coroners Service announced that morgues in the city of Vancouver were frequently full as a result of the unprecedented number of overdose deaths, forcing health authorities to store bodies at funeral homes.
This crisis is in large part the legacy of Canada's now defunct anti-drug strategy. Decades of a misguided criminal approach to drug policy has proven to be counterproductive, fuelling Canada's unregulated illegal drug market and leaving a scarcity of evidence-based health services, including harm reduction and treatment programs for people suffering from substance use disorder.
The Conservatives cut 15% from the addiction service budget in their last year in office. International research demonstrates that the criminalization of drugs increases rates of drug production, consumption, availability, and adverse drug-related health effects, but that is the evidence, and for the last 10 years our drug policy in this country was not based on evidence. It was based on ideology.
Because this crisis has been years in the making, it will not be solved by any one action or piece of legislation. I think we all know that. The passage of Bill C-37 must be the beginning of a much deeper examination of how we understand and respond to drug use and addiction in Canada.
For many years, New Democrats have been advocating for an evidence-based and health-focussed approach to drug use and addiction. Our party understands that substance use is not a moral failure. We also understand that criminal approaches that aim to punish or isolate those with addiction issues only serve to compound the suffering of those already experiencing tremendous pain.
As Dr. Gabor Maté, a Canadian physician who specializes in addictions has said:
Not all addictions are rooted in abuse or trauma, but I do believe they can all be traced to painful experience. A hurt is at the center of all addictive behaviours. It is present in the gambler, the Internet addict, the compulsive shopper and the workaholic. The wound may not be as deep and the ache not as excruciating, and it may even be entirely hidden — but it’s there.
That is why New Democrats have pushed the federal government to reinstate harm reduction as one of the four pillars of Canadian drug policy ever since it was removed by Stephen Harper. That is why New Democrats led the fight against the Conservatives' Bill C-2 from the day it was introduced. That is why we have pressed the Liberal government to repeal or amend Bill C-2 since February 2016, one year ago, when the opioid overdose crisis was in its earliest stage.
Last fall, the NDP successfully moved a motion at the Standing Committee on Health to conduct a study on the opioid overdose crisis. This led to a report with 38 recommendations to the federal government, most of which have not yet been implemented, I would point out.
We were the first to call for a declaration of a national public health emergency. Such a declaration would empower Canada's Chief Public Health Officer to take extraordinary measures to coordinate a national response to the crisis, a measure the Liberal government, still to this day, refuses to take.
Last December, we attempted to fast-track Bill C-37 because of the dire need to deal with this crisis as quickly as possible, but that, again, was blocked by the Conservatives.
Indeed, Bill C-37 continues to be delayed because the Conservatives refuse to acknowledge the crucial importance of harm reduction, and the evidence that supervised consumption sites save lives now.
Today, I am saddened to see that the Conservatives still have not learned from their mistakes, and I am deeply troubled that they continue to liken supervised consumption sites and the approval of same to pipeline approval processes.
After their bizarre offer to trade supervised consumption site approvals for pipelines, at the health committee, the Conservative member for Lethbridge argued that these health facilities should require the same social licence as energy projects before they are permitted to save lives. The member argued that we must maintain Bill C-2's unnecessary barriers because the placement of a site will impact the communities in which they are located.
For once, I agree with the member for Lethbridge. It is absolutely correct that these sites do indeed impact communities: by saving lives, by reducing crime, and by providing opportunities for recovery to people suffering from a disease.
The Conservative Party likes to imagine that supervised consumption sites might be imposed on communities by the federal government. The opposite is true. Supervised consumption sites only exist in Canada due to the tireless efforts of advocates and community members who contribute their time and talent to provide evidence-based, life saving health services. Sometimes, they have even done so at the risk of their own liberty.
Vancouver's Dr. Peter Centre provided supervised consumption services, in violation of federal law, for over a decade, since 2002, before the federal government finally granted it a legal exemption.
Vancouver's Insite had to fight the federal government all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada to keep its doors open. Even then, instead of complying with the spirit of the ruling, the Conservative government of Stephen Harper passed Bill C-2 as a thinly veiled attempt to prevent any new site from opening in Canada.
Today, as we speak, at least three overdose prevention sites are operating in the open in Vancouver without a legal exemption, against the law, exposing the staff who work there to criminal sanction because they are answering a higher call. They are answering the call of saving lives. That is why they are doing it.
The truth is supervised consumption sites do not harm communities; they help them. The evidence from Insite has been overwhelming and crystal clear.
By the way, the Conservatives talk about the negative impact of supervised consumption sites on communities. They never quote a single piece of evidence, not a shred, from any operating supervised consumption site because there are only two in Canada. Those two in Canada have been studied and written up in periodicals as respected as The Lancet and the evidence is crystal clear. They save lives. They reduce crime around the area. They stop open drug use. They reduce the spread of disease, and they stop the detritus of used needles in consumption sites from being out in the community where they can harm our community members and our children. That is the evidence.
When the Conservatives say that these sites impact communities, darn right they do, and they do so by helping the community. There is not an iota of evidence to the contrary.
Perhaps the Conservatives should listen to Edmonton's Mayor Don Iveson who recently said, “This is not a homeless, addicted issue. This is in pretty much every neighbourhood.”
The opioid crisis is here. It is already affecting our communities. Every day, it is claiming the lives of our friends, our family members, our neighbours.
The Conservative Party's argument that supervised consumption sites will somehow introduce opioid addiction to unaffected communities is baseless fearmongering, and it is deeply stigmatizing to Canadians with substance use disorders.
The truth is communities across Canada have been asking to open supervised consumption sites for years. It was by refusing to grant section 56 exemptions that the federal government was overruling both my home city of Vancouver and my home province's repeated requests. Indeed as Vancouver's Mayor Gregor Robertson has said: “Factors such as the impact of the site on crime rates and expressions of community support or opposition should not be relevant to the federal government's approval process. Those issues are local matters, and as such, are best dealt with by local officials, such as municipalities, health authorities, and local police agencies, who understand the issue.”
I will leave it to the Conservative Party to explain why it does not trust local authorities to make those determinations.
It has been community heroes, not the federal government, who have been on the front lines showing leadership throughout the current crisis. The efforts of these selfless people have undoubtedly saved lives and although there are too many to name individually here, I would like to specifically acknowledge the Herculean efforts of a few people.
The are: Ann Livingston and Sarah Blyth, founders of B.C.'s Overdose Prevention Society; Hugh Lampkin, long-time member of the Vancouver area network of drug users; Daniel Benson of the Portland Hotel Society; Gregor Robertson, mayor of Vancouver; Kerry Jang, city councillor of Vancouver; Maxine Davis, executive director of Vancouver's Dr. Peter AIDS Foundation; Katrina Pacey, executive director of Vancouver's Pivot Legal Society; Dr. Perry Kendall, B.C.'s Chief Medical Officer, the first and only medical officer in the country who has declared a public health emergency in British Columbia because he recognizes the extent of the crisis facing our community; and Dr. Gabor Maté, who is an internationally-renowned expert in addictions.
Having repeated requests for a declaration of a national public health emergency ignored by the current federal Liberal government, these front line organizations and the Government of British Columbia were forced to take the extraordinary measure of disregarding federal law by opening non-exempt pop-up supervised consumption sites which are operating right now as I speak. These sites have operated for months despite the daily risk of prosecution faced by those working at them as staff and volunteers.
Here is what the College of Registered Nurses of B.C. said to its membership last month.
This crisis may be prolonged and continue to worsen; as these overdose prevention services are being established across our province, in any place there is a need, we are being asked by nurses, “Is my licence at risk if I provide nursing care in these sites and conditions that can be less than ideal?”
Our courageous front line health workers should never be forced to ask that question.
That is why the NDP introduced an amendment at the health committee that would have allowed provincial health ministers to request in writing from the federal health minister emergency approval for supervised consumption sites in response to a local crisis.
Such an exemption would bypass the normal application process, and go into effect immediately for up to a year with the possibility of renewal. The federal minister would be required to post a provincial request online and post the response within five days.
This change was aimed at removing the potential for distant political considerations in Ottawa, many of which we hear expressed by members of the House today, to undermine or impede timely evidence-based decision responses to provincial public emergencies.
In the unusual situation where a province has declared a provincial health emergency, instead of forcing it to go through the application process which takes time, and time in a crisis like this costs lives, it gives the federal health minister the ability to grant a temporary approval quickly.
The Liberal government has repeatedly claimed that, with this legislation, it is now doing everything in its power to address this crisis, but that is demonstrably false. The government has failed to take many actions. There are literally dozens of them that are open to the government to take to respond to this crisis which it seems reluctant to do.
Recently, the City of Vancouver sent a list of nine recommendations to the federal government to help address this crisis, including calling for a central command structure, daily meetings with Health Canada, and improved treatment services.
A coroner's jury in British Columbia recently issued a list of 21 recommendations for action and the Standing Committee on Health in December issued a report detailing 38 recommendations for the government alone, again most of which remain unimplemented. The Liberal government is not doing everything it can to address the opioid crisis. It is taking some measures, but not all the measures it needs to.
When the health committee conducted the emergency study last fall into the crisis, the first recommendation made with all-party support was to declare opioid overdoses a national public health emergency. This call was echoed by Dr. David Juurlink, the keynote speaker at the health minister's own opioid summit last fall and now by B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake, a Liberal, and stakeholders across the country. In the face of a mounting death toll, a declaration of a national public health emergency would allow us to start saving more lives today.
Furthermore, during our study, the health committee heard that access to treatment for opioid addiction is almost nonexistent in indigenous communities, and where there is access, it is short-term access. That is because nurses employed by Health Canada do not have the scope of practice to support indigenous people in addressing opioid addiction in their own communities beyond 30 days. Yet, the Liberal government has made absolutely no commitment to ensuring full access to long-term, culturally appropriate addictions treatment in indigenous communities.
Finally, the health committee's recent report on the crisis made three separate and specific recommendations, calling for significant new federal funding for public community-based detox and addictions treatment. But the federal government will not commit to making any new funding available for detox and treatment in budget 2017, so far.
The health minister continues to recycle money dedicated to mental health, and claims that money can be used for addictions treatment. We are looking for new, specific, targeted funds for addictions treatment in this country. Mental health is a huge area, and there are many needs in this country. We all know that. We wanted targeted money from the government, and the government has refused to make that commitment so far.
I believe it behooves this House to be honest with itself. Would the federal government be so noncommittal and cautious in its approach if these deaths were caused by any other disease? As we look to the future, we must let go of our prejudices in order to hold on to our loved ones. Donna May, the founding member and facilitator of mumsDU, moms united and mandated to saving drug users, lost her daughter Jac to addiction at the age of 35. She said:
Most people would think that the hardest thing I’ve ever had to face was her death; the death of a child; the death of my only girl. However, that’s not it at all.
The hardest thing I’ve had to face in my life is realizing how my ignorance towards my daughter’s addiction cost me years with her that I will never get back. There are no ‘do-overs’ when your child is dead! Now I can only share my experience and what I’ve learned since, so that other parents can take something from it.
In many respects, substance abuse is one of the last remaining acceptable targets for health care discrimination. With all the evidence available to us, we should know better. If we are to succeed in treating addiction as a disease, which it is, we need to acknowledge that fear, stigma, and ignorance about those who suffer from addiction are widespread and in many respects have framed our approach to this crisis.
That is why, although these legislative changes are long overdue, they do not go far enough, fast enough. We need federal coordination and funding to address the crisis right now and over the long term. Canada's failure to treat addiction and substance use disorders by successive federal governments as a medical condition was explained to the health committee by Dr. Evan Wood from UBC.
I'll just ask you to imagine a scenario of somebody having an acute medical condition like a heart attack. They would be taken into an acute care environment. They would be seen by a medical team with ex1pertise in cardiology. The cardiovascular team would then look to guidelines and standards to diagnose the condition and to effectively treat it. Unfortunately, in Canada, because we haven't traditionally trained health care providers in addiction medicine, we have health care providers who don't know what to do, and routinely do things that actually put patients at risk.
In addition to the lack of training for health care providers, the overall lack of investments in this area has meant that there aren't standards, guidelines [or beds] for the treatment of addiction.
Dr. Mark Ujjainwalla, medical director of Recovery Ottawa, said:
The problem we face here is that the real issue with addiction is not opiates. The real issue is the inability of the present health care system to treat the disease of addiction. An addiction is a biopsychosocial illness that affects 10% of society, probably more if you include families, and it is the most underfunded medical illness in our society.
The problem is that it's also a highly preventable and very highly treatable illness. It's very unfortunate that people don't see that. When it affects your family or you, you can feel the pain and suffering, and you watch the tragedy unfold in front of you.
I would like to conclude my remarks by imploring this House to take a lesson from Estonia, a country that recently overcame an opioid crisis very similar to Canada's. The head of Estonia's drug abuse prevention department said, “I think the most important thing is you don't waste time. If you really want to learn from us, that's the mistake we made. Don't look for some new solutions, because you have them.”
We could say that history does not look kindly on those who dither in times of crisis. To put it bluntly, it is not the history books that should keep us up at night; it is the lives that we continue to lose every single day to entirely preventable causes.
Canadians are looking to us to provide leadership in a crisis. It is time for us to deliver.