I am deeply disturbed by the escalating numbers of opioid overdose deaths. It is a shocking fact that hundreds of Canadians died of accidental overdose in 2016. As federal Minister of Health, I am determined to work with all partners to combat what is arguably the greatest public-health crisis we face in Canada.
At the federal government level, we took several important steps in 2016. We made naloxone more widely available to help reverse overdoses; We overturned a ban on allowing doctors to use prescription heroin to treat the most severe cases of addiction; We granted an exemption to the Dr. Peter Centre in Vancouver to operate a supervised consumption site and a four-year extension to Insite in Vancouver; We introduced legislation to make it easier to establish similar life-saving facilities in communities that need them.
These actions bolster those of provincial governments, front-line health-care providers and people with lived experience who lead the fight – many of whose stories have been capably documented by Globe and Mail journalists.
In 2017, we must turn the tide on this crisis. First of all, we need Bill C-37 to move quickly through Parliament, so that those on the ground have the tools they need for prevention, treatment and harm reduction. Also on the legislative front, we need swift passage of the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act, to ensure that those who fear a drug-possession charge will not hesitate to call 911 when they witness an overdose.
We need to ensure implementation of commitments made at the national Opioid Conference and Summit that I co-hosted in November. These commitments from more than 35 organizations across Canada will provide tools and data to address the crisis. For example, the Canadian Institute for Health Information will publicly report national data on opioid-related deaths so we can better understand and react to the crisis. Various health professional associations will improve training of their members on pain management and appropriate use of opioids. These and other commitments are publicly available and progress will be reported quarterly.
To really solve this crisis though, we must look to its roots. They are tangled and deep. They branch off in many directions. Prescribing practices and deceptive marketing of opioids are part of the story. But not the whole story. Imported chemicals are implicated, but this is not the whole story either.
It is true that, for some, addiction starts with physical pain or biochemical risk factors. But for many, the pain that leads to substance use is not as simple as a broken limb or postoperative wounds.
Very often, social isolation and trauma are at the core of problematic substance use. As Dr. Gabor Maté writes: "hurt is at the centre of all addictive behaviour." That hurt takes many forms: childhood trauma, domestic violence, sexual abuse, abandonment, rejection and more.
That is why, as a federal government, we have committed to new federal funding of $5-billion over the next 10 years to address mental health. We know that untreated mental illness is a common cause of addiction and we need to intervene early.
Addiction is not a crime. Addiction is not a mark of moral failure. It is a health issue. For many, it is a mechanism to manage unbearable pain, an attempt to relieve suffering when life offers few alternatives.
Addressing the roots of the opioid crisis demands a whole-of-society response. It means calling out stigma and discrimination as barriers to care. It means building a society where children receive tender attention and adults aren't so isolated and lonely. It means an international search for effective answers and being willing to discuss bold policy alternatives. A national opioid crisis demands our collective courage, creativity and resources. In 2017, we must work together to identify solutions and save lives.