MPs spent Monday night debating the best ways to tackle Canada’s opioid crisis in a series of exchanges that turned heated at times, as politicians talked solutions such as declaring a public health emergency or coming up with more funding for treatment beds.
The discussion came at the behest of Conservative MP Alex Nuttall, who initiated it after initially requesting an emergency debate on the crisis in the House of Commons.
The request for an emergency debate was shot down, but House leaders later agreed to hold a “take note” debate, which lets MPs express their thoughts on a particular issue but doesn’t require them to make a decision.
WATCH: John Barlow recounts his best friend’s fight with opioid addiction
The debate came after Nuttall produced a report titled “Care and Compassion: Fighting the Opioid Crisis,” which looked at how drug issues are tackled in countries such as Portugal, Scotland and the United States.
Members later engaged in a series of arguments that showed very different means by which all three parties hope to ease the crisis.
Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor spoke first, noting over 8,000 apparent opioid-related deaths between January 2016 and March 2018.
That included 3,005 deaths in 2016, 3,996 in 2017 and 1,036 deaths in the first three months of this year.
She talked about how the Liberal government supports harm reduction “because we know that harm reduction saves lives.”
Under the Liberals, the federal government has approved over 25 supervised consumption sites, facilities where people can ingest drugs with medical staff nearby.
The government has also worked to raise awareness of the stigma surrounding drug addiction and increased access to naloxone, a medicine that can slow the effects of an overdose.
WATCH: No federal supports, funding planned for children caught up in opioid crisis
Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu challenged the Liberals on their spending, noting that they decided to spend $4.5 billion on the Trans Mountain pipeline but have only set aside just over $200 million for the opioid crisis.
Budget 2018 set aside $231.4 million to tackle the crisis, with $150 million going to the provinces and territories so that they could improve access to evidence-based treatment services.
That also included $13.5 million to expand Health Canada’s Substance Use and Addictions Program, which doles out money to provinces, territories and other organizations to strengthen responses to substance use issues.
Facing down questions from members, Petitpas Taylor talked about how the federal government is negotiating with provinces and territories to provide them with more funding to tackle the crisis.
NDP MP Don Davies noted that the minister called the opioid issue a crisis, but not a public health emergency under the Emergencies Act.
He argued that an emergency declaration would provide additional resources to address the crisis.
She disagreed, saying the government has been creative in its approach, that it is trying to meet clients where they are.
And that, she said, means treatment facilities and safe injection sites.
“I certainly think we have to recognize there’s not a ‘one size fits all’ to deal with this crisis on the ground,” she said.
Nuttall was next, saying he doesn’t believe the opioid crisis is a partisan issue.
He said that the Ontario city of Barrie, part of which is in his riding, saw 36 apparent opioid-related deaths in 2017, and said that the strategy that the feds are employing is not working.
Nuttall also noted a 40 per cent increase in opioid deaths between 2016 and 2017.
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He said federal funding has helped to create “only” 25 supportive residential treatment beds in B.C., a province he said has been deeply affected by the opioid crisis.
“I hope the government will change its path and put funding where it needs to go,” Nuttall said.
“I want to make sure we leave no more Canadians behind.”
Right away, John Oliver, parliamentary secretary to the minister, seized on Nuttall’s remarks and talked about the attitude of the federal government under prime minister Stephen Harper to InSite, a supervised consumption facility (also known as a safe injection site) in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) neighbourhood.
InSite was granted a six-month extension to continue operating in 2007, but there were concerns at the time that it would be shut down.
A constitutional claim was filed in B.C. Supreme Court to keep it open; the federal government appealed a decision in that case to the B.C. Court of Appeal, but there was also a cross-appeal.
That cross-appeal was allowed, while the federal government’s appeal was dismissed.
The case went to the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled that efforts by the country’s health minister to close InSite did not follow the Charter of Rights and Freedoms because it threatened the lives of those who used the facility.
Responding to Oliver, Nuttall said, “we have a chance to talk about a strategy going forward,” but the parliamentary secretary only wanted his opinion on what happened in the past.
Later, Liberal MP Sukh Dhaliwal again brought up Harper’s approach to drugs, and asked whether Nuttall would follow the former prime minister’s lead.
“It doesn’t matter what we call the sites. There is nothing safe about injecting illegal heroin,” Nuttall responded.
“In terms of moving forward, we need to realize we can create all these sites across the country, and they are one of 10 ways an individual can access help.”
Then Davies spoke, saying that B.C. has been in a state of health emergency since 2016, and that the NDP has been calling for such a state federally for over two years.
The federal government has refused.
Davies said that declaring a public health emergency would cut red tape and support overdose and prevention services.
Such a move, he added, would help to legalize overdose prevention sites like ones that operate in Downtown Vancouver.
WATCH: New overdose prevention site in Downtown Vancouver
Davies objected to characterizations of the NDP’s proposed solution as if they were looking for a “silver bullet.”
“No one is saying decriminalization on its own is what’s required,” he said.
“They’re saying decriminalization and regulation is key.”
The debate turned heated when Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux responded to Davies’ statement.
He stressed, firmly, that the provinces are responsible for bed allocations and that they’re the ones who need to lead when it comes to administering health care.
“We have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to try to assist in alleviating this crisis situation,” he said.
“To suggest the feds aren’t doing anything is bogus!”
Lamoureux went on to say the NDP are off base — that if the federal government wants to have the greatest impact, then it needs to provide government resources.
A member later took issue with the volume of his voice — he said a member could leave the House if anyone took issue with the way he was speaking.
He later apologized at the chair’s behest, after she explained that it was difficult for people to hear translations given the level at which he was talking.
WATCH: The tragic impact of Canada’s opioid crisis on children
Later in the debate, Conservative MP John Barlow told a personal story, as he argued that the federal government is “way off track” in focusing on decriminalization and the importance of safe injection sites.
He related how he once had to break into a friend’s apartment to check on her after she had been using.
“I didn’t wish I had got her to a safe injection site,” he said.
“I was thinking, how do I get treatment for one of my best friends in the world?”
Barlow related the challenge of finding a treatment bed but having to put her on a waiting list.
“When I hear criminalizing, this is not the right direction, decriminalizing is not the way to do it either,” he said.
“I know I’ll hear about what the Harper government did. In 2011, we weren’t facing the same crisis we are now.
“I can tell you from what I’ve experienced, I don’t want to go to another funeral for a friend who has died from a drug overdose.”