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Politics

It’s been called a national crisis, so why isn’t opioid abuse an election discussion?

WATCH: It's been called a national crisis, but there is little talk of how the federal parties plan to address opioids if elected.

When Giueseppe Ganci was diagnosed with diabetes, he said the healthcare red carpet was rolled out for him. However, he found a very different situation when he sought addictions treatment.

“When I went to my doctor and I had addiction, that red carpet wasn’t rolled out for me,” he said.

“I got lost in trying to find services. You need to use a credit card instead of your healthcare card for addictions services, and I really think that’s why we’re in an addictions crisis and an overdose crisis. It’s not that we have a broken system in this country, we just don’t have a system.”

READ MORE: How each federal party plans to deal with the opioid crisis

Now, Ganci considers himself evidence that recovery can work, and helps organize the travelling Recovery Capital Conference — single day conventions focused on sharing stories of recovery and advocating for improved addictions care.

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Nationwide, opioid-related deaths have been on an upward trend. Between the start of January 2016 and the end of March 2019 more than 12,800 people in Canada died of apparent opioid causes, according to Health Canada.

On Sept. 27, Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau called the opioid crisis a “national public emergency.”

In Saskatchewan, drug toxicity deaths saw a jump starting in 2014. That year, the coroner’s office recorded 85 drug-related deaths. In 2015, that figure jumped to 121 – followed by 109, 119, and 140 in 2018. Opioids were present in a majority of toxicity reports.

Emergency room admittance due to opioids is also on the rise, according to the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses (SUN).

SUN president Tracy Zambory said the union recently launched an ad campaign to raise awareness of overdoses. In the ad campaign, one nurse talks about seeing upwards of four overdoses a weekend.

“Our own police chief here, Chief [Evan] Bray, talks about how it’s a scourge and how we can’t arrest our way out of this so we know we have to start having these crucial conversations with all sorts of stakeholders,” she said.

With an election going, now is the time to reach the ear of federal decision-makers. Zambory said SUN’s plan to address the opioid crisis involves national pharmacare, plus comprehensive strategies on mental health, addictions and violence.

While Trudeau and other leaders have acknowledged how big an issue opioids are, Zambory wonders why they aren’t talking about it more on the campaign trail.

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“I think the clock is ticking. I think they better get it together and start talking. I think the electorate is going to demand that of the leaders that are there, and they had best get on it,” she said.

READ MORE: ‘The largest health crisis of our generation’: How each federal party plans to deal with the opioid crisis

The Liberal strategy focuses on treatment, harm reduction, safe consumption sites, and new money for the provinces and territories to expand local programs.

The Conservatives have not released their addictions strategy, but leader Andrew Scheer has criticized the Liberal safe consumption site plan, saying many communities worry about the impact on crime. The Conservatives have signalled a more law and order approach to the addictions crisis.

The NDP plan includes declaring a “public health emergency,” decriminalizing drugs so people can seek treatment without fear of arrest, and better fund provincial programs.

It’s this crossover where political scientist Jim Farney sees some difficulty making opioid a stand-out campaign issue.

“If you watch how the federal parties approach other issues it’s much easier for them to say ‘tax credit’ or ‘tax cut’ than it is to say we will put paramedics in the street to do x,” Farney said.

“That’s just not something the feds do.”

In addition to jurisdictional matters, Farney added there’s how do you frame the issue; health, mental health, addictions, poverty and/or law and order.

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“They’ll try to tie it into a larger issue that they can make seem consistent,” Farney said.

Still, as the campaign trail rolls on people continue to overdose. Two weeks ago, Saskatoon police responded to five overdose calls in 30 hours. One was fatal.

READ MORE: Saskatoon’s mayor weighs in on city’s drug crisis

Saskatoon Mayor Charlie Clark went on a ride-along over the weekend, and wound up attending a fatal overdose call.

In other parts of the country, even more people are dying.

Ganci is from British Columbia, where the opioid crisis has killed thousands. In 2015, fentanyl was detected in 153 overdose deaths. That figure climbed to 1,334. Preliminary data shows 446 deaths this year as of the end of June.

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He said it’s “disturbing” party leaders seem more focused on mudslinging than having a nationwide discussion on healthcare. The Recovery Capital Conference has been trying to get Ottawa involved in their programming for years, according to Ganci.

“We have 10,000 dead Canadians and our federal health minister is just too busy to reply to our emails after years of emails,” Ganci said.

“So that just shows where those 10,000 lives sit on their radar, and the family of those loved ones deserve more.”

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