The federal government is partnering with British Columbia to pour more than $71-million into increased access to opioid and addiction treatments in the province, which has been hit hardest by the overdose crisis and is leading the fight against it.
The money is coming from Ottawa's $150-million Emergency Treatment Fund, a new cost-sharing initiative that aims to help provinces and territories combat the national opioid crisis, which killed nearly 4,000 Canadians last year. Each province and territory has up to five years to match the money from the federal government, beyond the first $250,000.
British Columbia will spend close to $38-million and Ottawa will contribute roughly $34-million. The funds will be used to, among other things, expand injectable-opioid therapy for people with severe substance-use disorders, broaden access to youth supports and increase the number of available treatment beds. There were at least 1,450 overdose deaths in the province last year and 878 in the first seven months of this year alone.
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Funds are being allocated based on population as well as how severely the provinces have been affected by the crisis. So far, Newfoundland, New Brunswick and Quebec have also signed bilateral agreements. As part of those agreements, each province is required to outline a plan and file regular progress reports.
Federal Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor and B.C.’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Darcy, who co-signed the agreement, were both in Toronto on Thursday for a symposium on the opioid crisis. They spoke on a panel, along with Bill Blair, the federal Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction, Toronto Mayor John Tory and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, about the responsibilities that each level of government holds in combatting the crisis − and the need for collaboration.
"British Columbia truly is ground zero when it comes to leading the country in the number of overdose deaths," Ms. Darcy said. "But I think it's also fair to say we've led the way in the country in being bold and innovative in our response to the overdose crisis. And we are literally escalating our response every month, every week, every single day."
Mr. Tory agreed that British Columbia has set the “gold standard” when it comes to responding to the opioid crisis. “I’d like to see us try and reach that standard here,” he said.
Many people who have personal experience with drug use also attended the symposium, and made clear that they want to see action now − even holding up #TheyTalkWeDie signs in protest during one of the panels.
The Ontario government has been criticized by harm-reduction advocates for putting a pause on the opening of any new overdose-prevention sites, which are temporary facilities that provide supervised drug-use services. Premier Doug Ford and Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott have said they are looking at whether the provincial government’s focus should shift away from supervised drug use toward law enforcement and rehabilitation, and will be making a final decision by the end of September.
Mr. Tory said on the panel Thursday that he has no problem with a review, as long as it is done quickly. He noted that, in one year, one supervised consumption site in Toronto had more than 20,000 visits, and reversed at least 315 overdoses.
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“That’s a pretty substantial review in and of itself of what’s going on,” the mayor said.
In an interview with The Globe on Wednesday, Ms. Petitpas Taylor suggested the Emergency Treatment Fund could help fund overdose prevention sites in Ontario, should the province decide to keep them operational. The minister's office said Thursday that negotiations on a bilateral agreement with Ontario are continuing.
The two mayors also expressed a need for more co-ordination at the national level.
"I think ultimately, given the scale of this crisis and the tragedy unfolding, it's critical for the federal government to keep stepping up their overall co-ordination efforts and leadership − and tracking data, setting targets, and making sure that all provinces and cities are at the table and able to access best practices and contribute and make sure we're turning this around as a country," Mr. Robertson said.
The Globe and Mail is a partner in the two-day opioid symposium put on by the federal government and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.