Mr. Speaker, it is a huge privilege and honour to rise today to speak to Bill C-5.
I also want to take the opportunity to thank the people of Courtenay—Alberni for re-electing me for the third time. I am deeply honoured. I also want to extend my thanks not just to my supporters but to my family as well, especially my three children, who have been there supporting me on this incredible journey to fight for our country and for their future.
When it comes to Bill C-5, we are hearing a lot from the Liberals that this is a silver-bullet approach to addressing racial injustice and the overdose crisis by eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences and a few other firearms and tobacco offences. This is naive, and it is misplaced.
As New Democrats, we support removing mandatory minimum penalties for all but the most serious offences. This means that we support the removal of mandatory minimums for all drug offences, expanding access to alternative incentives for personal possession and diversion programs. Decriminalization of personal possession remains the preferred option for minor offences, as it would remove police, prosecutors and courts as barriers to addiction treatment.
When it comes to the crisis we are dealing with, we need to ensure that we are taking action quickly. The idea of making conditional sentencing more widely available for court sentences for minor drug cases is just not enough to address the runaway public health emergency, this opioid crisis, that is taking place, which is in parallel to the COVID crisis.
A simpler and less costly approach is the full decriminalization of possession of drugs for personal use and the expungement of previous criminal records for personal possession, combined with access for drug users to get a regular safe supply, treatment and supportive housing. We are talking about a comprehensive strategy to address the overdose emergency and save lives. This needs to happen urgently.
We could be debating a more comprehensive strategy, but instead the government has put very little effort in the bill before us, choosing instead to reintroduce almost exactly the same bill from the 43rd Parliament, which could have been passed. Instead, they held an unnecessary and costly election. The Liberals have failed.
Canadians who use drugs must be free from the threat of criminalization and the fear of losing their liberty and access to substances on which they depend. Criminal records for personal possession must be expunged to remove an often insurmountable barrier to employment and housing. We must assure the right of users to a safe supply of low-barrier, regulated drugs as an alternative to the poisoned substances, which are resulting in an epidemic of overdose deaths. Access to treatment therapies that address the root causes of drug use must be available as a component of public health in our system, and supportive housing, complete with the wraparound services essential for maintaining healthy lifestyle balance, must be made available.
New Democrats are not alone in calling for a comprehensive approach to addressing the overdose crisis and the implementation of these measures. We are in good company.
First and foremost, Canadians across the country support the overall decriminalization of possession for personal use. With every passing month, the calls for decriminalization become louder, as Canadians are confronted with the evidence of the overdose public health emergency in their communities.
Every one of us in the House dreads the call from a constituent who has lost a son, daughter, parent or friend to an overdose from a poisoned drug supply. I have received this call far too often over my six years in the House, and it is not an exaggeration to say that the majority of my constituents know a family affected by the tragedy of overdose.
I hear from them about drug users hiding in the shadows in fear of apprehension and criminal prosecution. In fact, my daughter was just at the funeral a week and a half ago of her friend, an 18-year-old young woman who died from a poisoned drug supply. Sadly, this situation is not uncommon to hear about in the House.
In addition to hearing from everyday Canadians, we have heard from public health experts from across the country. Dr. Bonnie Henry, the B.C. provincial health officer in my province, continues to call for decriminalization. Most recently, Dr. de Villa, the medical officer of health for the City of Toronto, as well as the former medical officer of health for Yukon, who now sits in the House, and their colleagues from one municipality and provincial jurisdiction to another, from coast to coast to coast, are pleading for simple possession to be decriminalized.
It is not a matter for the criminal justice system. It is a health issue. We keep hearing the government say it is a health issue, but it is still treating it as a criminal issue. In this bill, the government is continuing to do that.
These are the same public health experts that I just mentioned, who guided our response in the COVID-19 pandemic. We listened to them and heeded their professional advice often, and now we are ignoring them when it comes to the opioid crisis. They are saying the same thing, that we need evidence-based science to lead us out of this terrible crisis, and they are being ignored by the government. They are calling for decriminalization of possession of illicit drugs. This bill could have done that.
Standing with the public health community are Canada's police chiefs, who also called for decriminalization. They know first-hand the failure of the criminalization of drug use. They know first-hand the deadly consequences of exposure to an increasingly toxic supply of street drugs across this country. Increasingly, we are hearing the same message from local and national media across the country. It is like Groundhog Day. Every day we read another editorial by journalists who are hearing from their readers and seeing the evidence of a public health emergency that requires the decriminalization of personal possession, the expungement of criminal records, access to a safe supply of low-barrier regulated drugs, therapeutic support through treatment programs, and supportive housing for those in need.
We are in good company in calling for these measures. Public health experts, law enforcement officials, the media and everyday Canadians across the country, persuaded by overwhelming evidence, have determined that exposure to death by overdose must stop now.
The evidence that is underpinning this call for a comprehensive approach is an 87% increase in opioid overdose deaths in Manitoba last year over the previous year. In British Columbia, as we just heard, there were over 200 deaths in one month. That is the most on record. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it worse, forcing the closure of harm reduction locations and driving users further underground. Currently it is estimated that eight people are dying every day in Ontario, over six in B.C., and 20 across our country. In fact, the overdoses have increased in all regions of this country. We are seeing how it is disproportionately impacting Black, indigenous and racialized Canadians.
In October, B.C. chief coroner Lisa Lapointe noted that illicit drug toxicity killed 201 people, the same number as an entire year of deaths 10 years ago. She is calling for a regulated safer supply and decriminalized possession of small amounts for personal use. Just last week, she said that a comprehensive plan to ensure access to safe supply is essential. Shifting from a punishment and stigmatizing regime to a decriminalized, health-focused model is a critical step in reducing suffering and saving lives.
Again, we keep hearing from the Liberals that they are treating this as a health issue. We have heard the overwhelming advice from police chiefs and health officials that we need to take the first steps, which are decriminalization of personal possession and providing a safe supply.
Why has the Liberal government chosen not to listen to its own health professionals? To end the stigma, the government needs to act, but the stigma starts with the Prime Minister. He has not taken action. He is ignoring his own health experts. He is ignoring parents. He is ignoring the moms and the dads, the parents who have lost loved ones.
I am going to go straight to Gary Mason, who wrote this in The Globe and Mail:
I feel a sense of hopelessness. Giving out free drugs such as heroin to “addicts” just seems to be too big a leap for governments and society generally. Allowing people to die from their addictions is easier to accept. Which is just crazy when you think about it. Imagine seeing more than 8,500 people die from a drug overdose in just over five years as easier to accept than making a courageous effort to do something that could really make a difference.
At this point, what is there to lose?
I guess the answer is votes.
It is true that politicians are in the way of saving lives right now, and people are dying as a result of the inaction.