Madam Speaker, this is a timely debate, as I think all members of Parliament recognize. We are not only in a pandemic, but we are also in an ongoing overdose crisis that has been made even worse by the pandemic. In Canada, we have had over 16,000 overdose deaths since 2016. In my own community on southern Vancouver Island, there have been more than 449 overdose deaths since 2016.
This represents an enormous toll on families in my riding. Families have lost loved ones, be they fathers, mothers, siblings or children. Here is the kicker: on the south island, during this pandemic, the number of deaths from overdoses has nearly doubled this year over last. I know that the same pattern has been occurring across the country.
Without a doubt, there is a pressing need to address the overdose crisis. I acknowledge the member for Beaches—East York for trying to suggest ways for the House to grapple with this problem. The bill we have in front of us today is, in fact, one of two bills put on the Order Paper by the member for Beaches—East York. As I remarked, I have some trouble understanding why he has chosen this bill, rather than the other bill.
The other bill I am talking about is Bill C-235, which would address the overdose crisis directly by decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of prohibited drugs for personal use, thus shifting our response from punishment to harm reduction for addiction: something that is clearly a health problem or a medical condition.
In fact, as I mentioned earlier, the member for Beaches—East York just gave a very eloquent speech in support of his other bill, Bill C-235. He laid out all the reasons in his speech for decriminalization. Unfortunately, he has decided to proceed with the other bill, which completely misses the mark as a response to this crisis.
I will come back to the details of Bill C-236 in a moment, but first I want to stress how happy New Democrats would be to support his first bill instead. Personally, I have been a supporter of the decriminalization of drugs for decades, including during the whole time I taught criminal justice at the post-secondary level.
I first publicly called for decriminalization as a city counsellor in Esquimalt. When I did this, we were beginning to recognize the extent of the overdose crisis. At that time, some questioned why a city counsellor would be dealing with this question. My answer was simple. When members of our communities are dying unnecessary deaths, deaths that scar our communities, why would we not take the path to reducing these losses when the path is so clear?
Former NDP MP Libby Davies was an early and strong supporter of decriminalization in the House. She made her position very clear in 2013, when the Harper government was seeking to shut down Insite, which at the time was the only safe injection site in Canada.
At the NDP convention in 2018, delegates passed a resolution calling for an end to criminalization of personal possession of drugs. I am proud that my party was the first Canadian party to include decriminalization in our election platform. We desperately need a bill to do this, but Bill C-236 is not that bill.
Instead, we have a bill that only proposes alternatives to charging people for possession, something that is, in fact, already the practice in most jurisdictions. To me, it seems to be a waste of the House's time and efforts to focus on something like Bill C-236, and diversion from charges, when the simple solution is to end charging altogether by ending criminalization of personal possession of drugs.
This bill does nothing to help persons struggling with addiction get the help they need without fear of arrest. It is still there. Nor does it touch on the real criminals: those who traffic and profit from the addictions of others in our communities. The absence of federal leadership on this issue has led to repeated pleas for help from mayors and premiers.
This past July, Premier Horgan of British Columbia wrote to the Prime Minister, asking that the government decriminalize personal possession of drugs. Just a few days ago, I spoke with Vancouver mayor and former MP Kennedy Stewart, whose frustration with the lack of federal action on the opioid crisis caused him to strike out on an innovative plan.
He has requested by letter a federal exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to decriminalize illicit drugs within the City of Vancouver's boundaries so that the City can properly address the public health concerns caused by the opioid crisis. His resolution cites a number of factors in favour of decriminalization. Many of the same ones were mentioned in the speech by the member for Beaches—East York.
Mayor Stewart begins by citing the very high number of deaths in Vancouver from overdoses. He also cites how COVID makes the overdose crisis worse by further isolating drug users within the community, by limiting access to harm reduction services and, as we have seen most recently, by the increasing toxicity of the drug supply on the streets.
He cited the support of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police. He cited the support of the B.C. provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry. He cited the support of organizations such as the Pivot Legal Society in Vancouver and the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. He also made a final point, which I think is worthy of us noting in the House, that decriminalization is a way to address the overdose crisis, but it is also an important part of any program to address the systemic racism in our justice system.
Why is Bill C-236 so weak? It is described as an evidence-based diversion framework. We already have that in practice, as I said, in most jurisdictions. It will do nothing for the person who eventually refuses any of those alternatives because they will still end up charged and will still end up with a criminal record for drug possession.
There are also some technical problems with the bill. I am still a recovering criminal justice instructor. I doubt that the bill could actually be applied in British Columba, Quebec or New Brunswick, because the bill is modelled on the Ontario system, where the police lay charges. In those three provinces, the police do not lay charges. I wonder whether the bill has actually taken into account the reality of British Columbia, Quebec and New Brunswick. I do not think that it has.
The bill seeks to reduce the criminalization of drug users through diversion from charges, something which, again, is already taking place in most jurisdictions. The simple solution is right before our eyes. Here is what New Democrats have been calling for to meet the challenges of this other epidemic. These are measures based on sound, evidence-based health policy. We have five things that we say Canadians need.
Canadians need, right now, a national declaration of a public health emergency on the opioid crisis. Canadians need federal funding and stable funding for overdose prevention sites. Canadians need improved access to treatment on demand for people struggling with addictions. Canadians need an end to the poisoned street supply and access to a safe supply of drugs as a medically regulated alternative to the toxic street drugs offered, most of the time, by organized crime. Canadians need to see an investigation into the role of drug companies and the role they may have played in fuelling the opioid crisis, and they need to see a demand put forward for meaningful financial compensation from those companies that profited off the opioid crisis.
Bill C-236 says it used evidence-based measures to come to the conclusion that we need diversion. I would say that is not where it leads us at all. These demands and measures are strongly supported by public health advocates. The police, and all of those who are really interested in public health, say we need decriminalization. The war on drugs has been a clear failure. Instead of stigmatizing and punishing Canadians who are suffering from substance use disorders, it is time for bold and compassionate leadership from the federal government.
While the overdose crisis strikes at all Canadian families, a response that meets the needs of our most marginalized communities is urgently required. The fact that we are dealing with a private member's bill on this topic, and the fact that we have no government bill or government response to the opioid crisis, tells us a lot. We need a bill. The member for Beaches—East York gave an eloquent speech tonight, just as I said, in support of the wrong bill. It is his other bill we need to be dealing with.
Bill C-236 is not the bill that Canadians need. New Democrats will not be supporting a bill that does little or nothing to address the opioid crisis. We need bold action now but, unfortunately, there is no bold action in Bill C-236. Bill C-236, as I said, will actually take up time in the House we could use more productively to decriminalize personal possession of drugs in this country.