Supporting safe consumption sites

Murray Rankin speaks in support of Bill C-37 in the House of Commons, February 1, 2017

 Mr. Speaker, let me begin by saying a few words about how this affects the people of Victoria who sent me here to speak on their behalf. Where I come from this is not an academic debate; it is a crisis across our community.

In the first 11 months of last year, my community lost 60 people to overdoses. I personally know families who have lost loved ones. None of us remain unaffected. We have been robbed of far too many people who might still be our friends, our neighbours, and coworkers today if we had the services to prevent overdoses and provide the treatment that is so desperately needed in our community. Still, people in Victoria and across British Columbia have taken what action they can in the absence of leadership from their federal government.

Last April, British Columbia declared the first public health emergency in our history. In December, the provincial health minister authorized temporary overdose prevention sites. There are now three such sites in my city of Victoria.

On January 4, thanks to the hard work of so many in our community, the Vancouver Island Health Authority submitted an application for the first full service safe consumption site in Victoria, and there will be more. That application is now before the Minister of Health, and I hope that she will do everything in her power, as I will do everything in mine, to see that this life-saving community initiative is approved without further delay.

The hard work of those who are fighting to save lives on the streets of Victoria has not been in vain. Because of their efforts, we have three small overdose prevention sites in place. In its first month, one such site reported an overdose nearly every day. But because the right services were available, not a single life was lost. That is the difference these services make in the real world. That is why we called for this legislation a year ago. That is why we will not allow it to be delayed any further.

To understand the scale and urgency of this crisis, we need to look beyond our own communities. My home province, British Columbia, lost 914 citizens to illicit drug overdoses just last year. That is not only the deadliest year on record for us, it is on par with the highest overdose rates among the American states. Last year, Ontario lost two citizens a day. That many lives are now lost each and every day in the city of Vancouver alone.

Some 2,000 Canadians died of this in 2015. We know that many more died in 2016 as powerful opioids like fentanyl spread across the country. I know it can be hard to give meaning to numbers like that unless we know some of the victims by name. But consider what my colleague from Vancouver Kingsway, our NDP health critic, reminded us of yesterday. In 2003, we lost 44 Canadians during the SARS crisis. During the opioid crisis, we are now losing that many fellow citizens every week. If 40 or 50 Canadians were dying of an infectious disease every week, this House surely would not stand idly by. So let me address something head-on.

There are some in this place who think there is nothing we can do to stop the crisis, who think that addiction represents a moral failure, that it has always existed on the margins of society, and all that has changed is that the drugs just get stronger.

For too long, that outdated view guided government policy, and refused to bend to evidence from doctors, courts, and front-line workers. So let us be clear. What we are facing today is unlike anything Canada has ever experienced before.

This is not just about Downtown Eastside Vancouver. It is about suburban kids experimenting with recreational drugs that turn out to be laced with opiates 100 times stronger than heroin, and then they die. It is about athletes and office workers becoming dependent on prescription painkillers, folks who have never struggled before with addiction, but now have nowhere to turn but the street.

It is about firefighters and paramedics who have to wear masks to stop inhaling drugs so powerful that a dose no bigger than a grain of salt can be deadly. Opioid use disorder is a disease and it should be treated as such. One of those firefighters is Chris Coleman. He came from Vancouver to testify before the House health committee. He said this:

It takes a toll...to work extremely hard but to feel that you are having little or no impact on a problem that is growing exponentially, like a tidal wave, on the streets of your city....our brothers and sisters who work in the Downtown Eastside are in trouble. They feel abandoned and they feel hopeless.

It has taken the government far too long to act, but now we have a bill before us that can begin to help. By passing this bill we can lift the barriers, some of them at least, that prevent communities from establishing life-saving safe consumption sites. We can send a signal to provinces, like British Columbia, that the federal government will step up and do its part. We can show people like Chris Coleman, and the thousands of firefighters and paramedics, police officers, and front-line workers like him, that they are not abandoned, that their work does matter, that we do care, and that their community has their back.

We have to be realistic. This bill alone will not solve the opioid crisis. We are here because government after government has failed to invest in detox, treatment, education, and prevention. The government has failed to put in place that foundation of services that would save lives and connect drug users to the support they need to stabilize and begin the long journey out of addiction.

Hundreds of Canadians are now dying in the gaps that governments have let grow year after year. For more than a year, we have been calling for a bill to repeal the Conservatives' Bill C-2 and lift the barriers that the previous government erected to make it harder for communities to open life-saving safe consumption sites. When I spoke to that bill, I called it the “24 ways to say 'no' act”.

It has taken far too long to get here. I regret that the government took so long to come around to our point of view and accept that legislative action repealing Bill C-2, or replacing it, was necessary. Thankfully, here we are.

Bill C-37 would save lives. We must pass it as soon as possible. For that reason, the NDP moved in December to fast-track the bill right to the Senate. It was blocked. I want to make sure that does not happen again and that we get this done.

I will continue to urge the minister to declare a public health emergency and allow emergency overdose prevention sites to operate legally across the country. I will continue to call on the government to use the powers it already has and expedite applications from cities like Montreal, Victoria, and Toronto, that have been gathering dust as Health Canada sits around and looks at them for months at a time. I will continue to ask why the government continues to ignore the recommendations from major cities, medical authorities, and even Parliament's own health committee, on other steps to turn the tide on this crisis.

In conclusion, passing this bill is not sufficient, but it is necessary. Therefore, on behalf of a Canadian community at ground zero in this crisis, I urge all members to support this life-saving bill and pass it now before more Canadians are lost to this preventable crisis.