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Big-city mayors call on Ottawa, provinces to help tackle opioid crisis

A small bottle of the opiate overdose treatment drug naloxone is seen in Atlantic City, N.J., on Feb. 19, 2014.

Mel Evans/The Associated Press

Mayors of Canada's largest cities are calling for a nationwide emergency response to an epidemic of opioid overdose deaths devastating many communities.

The big city mayors of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities launched a task force on Friday, and called on the federal and provincial governments to help turn the tide on the epidemic, including funding more treatment programs for people addicted to opioids.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, chair of the task force representing municipal leaders of 12 cities, said Ottawa and the provinces are not doing enough to stop a "horrific loss" of lives. "We need to push them harder to step up their health responsibilities and treat this like a true national health crisis," Mr. Robertson said in an interview.

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British Columbia has been hardest hit by the crisis, which began in 2012 with the arrival of illicit fentanyl smuggled into Canada from China. In 2016, 914 people in the province died of opioid overdoses – about two-thirds were linked to illicit fentanyl.

"B.C. has had the most horrendous death toll so far," Mr. Robertson said. "If that continues to move across the country, it will be a bloodbath."

In Calgary, where firefighters have been trained to administer the overdose antidote naloxone, they have dealt with overdose calls once a day for the past month and many first responders are already burning out as the crisis escalates.

Two or three people are dying every week in Calgary of opioid overdoses, said Mayor Naheed Nenshi. "It is without question the most dangerous thing happening in Calgary right now," he said in an interview.

Other cities across Canada are bracing for the eastward spread of illicit fentanyl and the much more powerful carfentanil, a drug used to tranquilize elephants and other large animals. Carfentanil turned up for the first time in Winnipeg in September and in Ontario in December.

The Office of the Chief Coroner of Ontario has not yet published overdose figures for 2016. In 2015, there were 253 overdose deaths in Toronto, with 42 linked to fentanyl, a drug 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine.

Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale have agreed to meet with the members of the task force – a date has not yet been set.

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The federal government has unveiled a series of measures aimed at curtailing Canada's booming underground market in fentanyl. Under Bill C-37, tabled in the House of Commons in December, pill-press machines used in clandestine labs to manufacture bootleg fentanyl would no longer be imported into Canada, and border guards who inspect goods coming in would have broader powers to seize and open suspect packages.

The bill passed second reading in the House this week and is expected to be fast-tracked through committee hearings.

Dr. Philpott, who has pledged to use every tool at her disposal to combat the opioid epidemic, said on Friday that she welcomes the involvement of the big city mayors.

"To really resolve this, we have to collaborate," she said in an interview. "We have to all be working together, not pointing fingers at one another."

Under Dr. Philpott's leadership, Health Canada made naloxone available without a prescription last year, which helped make the drug more widely available in many communities.

While harm-reduction measures such as naloxone are helping to save lives, Mr. Robertson said, they are not enough. The death toll in British Columbia has "skyrocketed," he said, because there are not enough treatment programs.

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With a report from Justin Giovannetti in Edmonton

Video: How overdose fatalities in B.C. compare to other causes of death
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About the Author

Karen Howlett is a national reporter based in Toronto. She returned to the newsroom in 2013 after covering Ontario politics at The Globe’s Queen’s Park bureau for seven years. Prior to that, she worked in the paper’s Vancouver bureau and in The Report on Business, where she covered a variety of beats, including financial services and securities regulation. More

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