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Canada's Minister of Health, Ginette Petitpas Taylor speaks with participants during a conference break in Toronto. Doctors, users and policy makers from across Canada come together for a two-day conference on Canada's opioid crisis beginning Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018.

Chris Donovan

The federal Health Minister says she will work with her Ontario counterpart to ensure life-saving overdose-prevention sites and supervised drug-use sites continue to operate in the province.

At a symposium on the opioid crisis, Ginette Petitpas Taylor told The Globe and Mail on Wednesday she is committed to working with Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott “to make sure we provide them with all the information they need, in order to make an informed, evidence-based decision that these supervised consumption sites work – that they save lives.”

Ms. Elliott's office last month put a hold on the opening of any new overdose-prevention sites, which are temporary facilities that provide supervised drug-use services, so that she can conduct a review before the provincial government makes a final decision by the end of September. Ms. Elliott and Premier Doug Ford have said they are reviewing whether the provincial government’s focus should shift away from supervised drug-use toward law enforcement and rehabilitation.

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“I truly hope they’re going to – not even reconsider, because they haven’t made a decision yet – but we certainly hope that they will maintain the status quo,” Ms. Petitpas Taylor said Wednesday.

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. The symposium will continue Thursday, bringing politicians together with experts from fields such as health care, harm reduction and policing, as well as those with lived experience. The goal is to brainstorm solutions to a public-health crisis that killed more than 4,000 Canadians last year – a 34-per-cent jump from the previous year, according to data from a new federal task force.

Outside the event Wednesday, dozens of health-care providers and harm-reduction workers gathered to protest the Ontario government's decision to pause the opening of new overdose-prevention sites.

In an open letter to Ms. Elliott and Mr. Ford, more than 850 health-care providers across the province urged them to call off the freeze and expand funding for temporary overdose-prevention sites, as well as permanent supervised drug-use sites. Extensive research has already shown that these services work to save lives and keep communities safe, the groups argued.

Zoe Dodd, a lead organizer of the Toronto Harm Reduction Alliance, which opened an unsanctioned overdose-prevention site in a trailer in Toronto's Moss Park, criticized Ms. Elliott for not attending the symposium.

“If you want to learn about evidence, you would think that you would sit in a summit, where you could get the information you need so that you can have your evidence,” Ms. Dodd said.

According to her spokesperson Hayley Chazan, Ms. Elliott was unable to attend the symposium “because she had a number of prior engagements, including a visit to a drug-injection site in Toronto.

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Ms. Petitpas Taylor said Wednesday that she found the event valuable, and plans to follow up on some of the issues that were raised.

"To give you an example, at one of the panels today that I was at, I heard someone say 'why is naloxone not available in federal institutions?' And when I heard that, I was kind of like, that's a really good point – I had never thought of that. If we don't have these conversations, and we don't learn from each other … things are never going to get better."

Asked about the lawsuit filed last week by the British Columbia government against dozens of players in the opioid industry in an effort to recoup health-care costs associated with an overdose crisis, Ms. Petitpas Taylor said her department is in the process of reviewing the documents, reiterating that the federal government will also be moving to restrict all marketing of opioids.

With files from Justin Giovannetti

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