1st Session, 42nd Parliament,
Volume 150, Issue 100

Wednesday, March 1, 2017
The Honourable George J. Furey, Speaker

Ministry of Health

Opioid Addiction Crisis

Hon. Mobina S. B. Jaffer: My question relates to fentanyl. Minister, I come from an area where everyday I pass by two or three ambulances. And you don’t need to be told that we have had almost 800 deaths.

Minister, I see you often in my province. It is a good thing you’re not a senator because you would have residency issues because you’re there so much. So I know you are really working hard, and I’m not trying to beat up on you. But I feel impotent as a politician when you see these ambulances and you wonder whether a person will make it. What happens to their family? You know overdosing is an epidemic in my area.

I know that you’re doing a lot, but what is the whole of government approach with you, Justice and the cabinet? What is your vision? How are we going to address this issue? When I speak to people on the street, people say to me, “This is not a big thing when you think about our great country and all the resources we have, and we can’t get a handle on it.”

What do we need to do to stop this crisis?

Hon. Jane Philpott, P.C., M.P., Minister of Health: Thank you for raising this question and bringing us back to the topic of fentanyl and the overdose crisis in general, which has hit Western Canada in such a dramatic way, as you noted. It truly breaks my heart every time I hear about the number of deaths that take place. These are young people’s lives cut short in what’s essentially a preventable crisis.

Our response to this has to be whole of government, whole of society — every level of government. Every Canadian has to get on board with this. Well over 2,000 people died of overdoses in Canada last year. The numbers in British Columbia went up by 80 per cent from one year to the next. If we continue to see an escalation like that, it would be simply unacceptable in every way.

Our response has to be comprehensive in terms of who is involved but also what happens. We’ve turned away from the anti-drug strategy the previous government put in place, and we have reintroduced a Canadian drugs and substances strategy in which harm reduction has returned. That is probably the easiest way to frame what the response needs to look like, because that allows you to look at four pillars: prevention, treatment, harm reduction and law enforcement. It needs to have all of those.

In the area of prevention, there is a tremendous amount that can be done. I could go on all day about this, but in November, we brought together over 30 organizations across the country that work with regulatory and prescriber groups, researchers and all sorts of others who are looking at how we can address the introduction to opioids from the prescription level. There is a lot of work that can be done on the prevention side of that, and I’ve talked about mental health and the effects that mental illness and unresolved trauma have. Something you may want to emphasize is that people use substances because they are in pain. That pain is sometimes physical pain, but very often it’s emotional. Very often it is the pain of loneliness and isolation and the lack of opportunity in people’s lives and the fact that people were abused as children, and all kinds of other reasons. We will not solve this crisis until we acknowledge that those are the roots of the crisis that are deep in society. It’s not just about people overprescribing medication.

Much needs to be done in the area of treatment. I have spoken briefly about prevention and harm reduction, which I know you are all supporting as you move Bill C-37 through the Senate. We’ve done a lot of work on naloxone, making sure it is widely available to save lives.

Treatment is the other area where the Senate could have a strong role, and Senator Campbell has already spoken to it and no doubt you have also discussed this, because the response is going to require recognizing that this is a health issue. Addiction is not a crime. Addiction is not a moral failing. Addiction is a health issue, and people need to be treated as if they have a health condition. They need to be treated with compassion, dignity and respect. They need to be given appropriate treatment. We need to have access to appropriate treatment resources in the country.

I truly think the Senate will have an important role. I look forward to what you can do. Of course, this needs to be done in conjunction with many other jurisdictions to get this right.

We can turn this around. Early this morning I met with coroners and medical examiners across the country. I met with people from Statistics Canada and CIHI so we get the data. We are determined to address this in the most rapid and effective way possible.