If government can mobilize to address the COVID-19 pandemic, why not also in response to the worsening overdose crisis?
That question prompted a trio of city councillors, in a rare and united effort on Tuesday (Dec. 9), to put forward a joint notice of motion, calling on the federal government to do more do address countless lives lost to overdoses, including record numbers of people in Kamloops.
The motion — made and presented jointly by councillors Dale Bass, Sadie Hunter and Kathy Sinclair — asks the federal government to declare the overdose crisis a national public health emergency and create a Canada-wide overdose action plan, including consideration of decriminalization of possession of illicit drugs.
“If we’re mobilizing and taking action on the COVID crisis federally and provincially, I know we can do that about the overdose crisis, too,” Sinclair told KTW. “It’s time to shine a light on it. It’s time to be open. … Our hope is that the governments will listen, provincial and federal governments listen, and that we can stop people from dying because it’s just unacceptable.”
The opioid crisis continues to spiral in the shadows of a global pandemic, with nearly 1,400 overdose deaths in British Columbia through October of this year, compared to 543 British Columbians who have died from COVID-19 as of Dec. 8. City councillors note that both are health crises, but the one that has killed more people is not receiving the same response.
Through October, Kamloops has recorded more overdose deaths — 50 — than any other year.
In recent weeks, Vancouver council passed a motion asking the federal government to decriminalize simple possession of hard drugs like cocaine and heroin, with the goal of recognizing the opioid crisis as a health issue, not a criminal one. It is the same process used to create the first safe injection site, in 2003 in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
In wake of Vancouver council’s motion, KTW last month spoke to Kamloops councillors about whether they would replicate that action. The motion presented on Tuesday does not go that far, but is one of advocacy.
Sinclair said Moms Stop the Harm, a group representing Canadian families impacted by substance use and advocating for change, reached out to council and explained the importance of adding its voice to the conversation.
“We think, collectively, it’s a very strong voice,” Sandra Tully of Moms Stop the Harm said of the importance of municipalities in conversations to address the opioid crisis. “One person standing on the street corner with a sign is not as effective as 50 people on a street corner with a sign. We think that all municipalities, if they can get behind this — and we don’t understand why they wouldn’t want to get behind this — can push the federal government into making changes that are necessary.”
Sinclair said the three councillors created their motion based on a template provided to them by Moms Stop the Harm. The organization also sent a request last month to municipalities across the country to put forward motions that would prompt the federal government to act. Squamish and a handful of communities elsewhere in Canada passed them.
Tully touted the Kamloops councillors’ initiative and expects council will get behind it. She noted British Columbia is years into publicly declaring a public health emergency (in 2016) over the opioid crisis and said the federal government is the “hold up,” without appropriate funding nor changes to drug laws.
“We don’t think we can continue to wait for the federal government. We need to push them,” Tully said.
The United States declared its opioid crisis a public health emergency under the Trump administration in 2017.
Bass noted the motion also asks the federal government to talk to those impacted by the overdose crisis, such as Moms Stop the Harm, and to meet with agencies and other levels of government to devise a plan to end the opioid crisis.
“Just like they’re doing with COVID now,” Bass said. “We can do this.”
Hunter said she doesn’t know why it is taking so long for the federal government to act. The final part of the motion calls for the initiative to be forwarded to other B.C. municipalities in a call to arms.
Hunter is on the board of the Union of BC Municipalities and said at the most recent conference, she asked Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry how lessons learned from the pandemic response could be used to respond to the opioid crisis. Henry apparently advised that the opioid crisis is a complex problem without one solution. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has also said decriminalization is not a silver bullet solution.
Hunter, however, said it is all the more reason communities cannot address the issue on their own and why the federal government needs to act now. She said various community and health organizations are trying to manage the crisis on a piecemeal basis, but are under-resourced. What is lacking, Hunter said, is a unified response and urgency from the general public. On that front, councillors and Moms Stop the Harm are also working to reduce stigma, reminding the public that the people who are dying by drug overdose are neighbours, friends and family members.
“Municipalities are very limited in what we can do, but at the same time, are the most impacted,” Hunter said. “Because it’s our citizens, it’s our families, it’s our neighbours, the people working in our stores or experiencing poverty across all spectrums. We are the closest to it and I think other orders of government have an awareness of it, but I don’t know how much they experience the impact of that on the daily basis. Really, I think we’re at our wits end, to some extent. We’ve been asking for help, asking for support. This is really an opportunity to say, ‘Look, do something different.’ There’s no reason we can’t give the overdose crisis the same level of attention and resources and support as other things we’re doing in COVID response.”
At least one city councillor plans to support the three councillors’ notice of motion next week, meaning nearly half of council is already on board. Arjun Singh commended council’s lone three female councillors for their collaborative initiative and said he will back the motion.
“I’ll definitely support it,” Singh said, calling the three councillors “leaders.”
“I’m really happy to take the leadership and support an important initiative. I think people in the community really would be happy to hear us talk about this and do this motion, send it forward. I’m completely thankful to them for raising this and I’m really happy to support it.”