Jordan Westfall and David Mendes are co-founders of the Canadian Association for Safe Supply.
For an example of how stigmatized, devalued and ignored people who use drugs are in Canadian society, look no further than the federal election debate, where the leaders from the six political parties assembled for a nationally televised discussion of the most important issues facing our country.
It wasn’t the stigmatizing language that was alarming; it was the silence. Not a single word was spoken about the overdose crisis by any of the six party leaders. Meanwhile, according to the national averages, an estimated 12 people died of drug overdose that day.
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Was it optimistic to hope that 13,000 overdose deaths would make it into the conversation?
A Canadian dies of a drug overdose every two hours. The health crisis is responsible for life expectancy falling for the first time in 40 years. Throughout the past few years, the situation continues to worsen, spreading east from British Columbia and Alberta.
Instead, the agendas of our federal leaders focused on issues that fall under the “cost-of-living” banner. If we look closer at the economic, social and emotional costs the overdose crisis has had on thousands of families across the country, it makes cost-of-living issues such as property taxes and infrastructure expenditures seem absurd by comparison.
Earlier on the campaign trail, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh described the Liberal government’s refusal to declare a national public-health emergency as a “betrayal” of families affected by the overdose crisis. The NDP is pledging to end “the criminalization of addiction.” Elizabeth May and the Green Party promise to do the same. Meanwhile, the Liberal platform emphasizes rerouting offenders into drug courts rather than criminal courts, and extending the operating hours of supervised drug consumption services such as Insite in Vancouver, along with investing hundreds of millions into treatment.
If you watched the English-language leadership debate, you would not have come away with any of this knowledge. In fact, you wouldn’t even know that Canada is facing an increasingly severe health crisis, because it was not mentioned by any of the party leaders.
The implicit message taken from this exclusion: It doesn’t matter how many people die, how many family members are in mourning, or how many more people Canada will lose to overdose in the future. These lives are not worth discussing, except – as in the case of Andrew Scheer and the Conservatives – for those who use them as political scapegoats.
Sadly, there are still far too many Canadians holding the misguided belief that if people “just stopped using drugs,” the dying would stop. However, it’s more accurate to describe the overdose crisis as a policy issue, meaning the laws and policies that are supposed to control and regulate drugs are actually drivers of the crisis.
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This is exactly why it’s so disheartening to see politicians avoid discussion of the role their own policies, both current and historically, are playing in the situation.
Canada will likely experience tens of thousands more deaths in the coming years if the country does not make the systemic changes necessary to save lives. Canada’s illicit drug supply is experiencing widespread contamination in the form of drugs such as fentanyl or carfentanil contributing to the majority of overdose deaths. Efforts to increase access to safe drug supplies are used by Conservatives as a wedge issue.
Unless Canada puts concerted funding, resources and political capital into replacing the contaminated supply with a safe supply, the death toll will continue, in lockstep with a political leadership that hardly notices.
This is the worst public-health crisis in a generation. A staggering 4,000 Canadians have died in just the past year. Despite years of effort aimed at reducing stigma, the catastrophe remains largely an unspoken one, and excluded from the most important political conversations in the country.
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