Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Cancel Anytime
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](,dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

Brian Twaites, advanced care paramedic with BC Emergency Health Services, tends to a call in the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver, B.C. on Dec. 21, 2016.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

British Columbia's health minister is calling on the federal government to declare a national public-health emergency to combat an overdose crisis that killed more than 900 people in B.C. last year – nearly double the number in 2015, and the province's worst death toll in three decades of record keeping.

However, Terry Lake's federal counterpart, Jane Philpott, said while the escalating number of overdose deaths may be the "greatest public-health crisis we face in Canada," her government is already using every tool at its disposal and the Emergencies Act would not grant it any powers it does not already have.

B.C. Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe said at a news conference in Victoria on Wednesday that 914 people died of illicit drug overdoses in 2016. In comparison, 510 people died in 2015, and 400 in 1998.

Story continues below advertisement

Read more: On Cheque Day, a toxic mix of money and drugs in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside

Read more: How a B.C. couple's struggle with addiction ended in deadly fentanyl overdoses

Read more: Fentanyl's Deadly Path: How the powerful drug gets through Canada's border

The increase is being driven in large part by illicit fentanyl, a synthetic opioid being cut into a growing percentage of drugs due to its low cost and high potency.

B.C. officials have undertaken a broad range of responses, from adding new treatment beds and widely distributing the opioid antidote naloxone to calling for a significant change in federal policy that would make "hard" drugs legal so they can be regulated.

But as the body count climbs, critics are accusing governments of acting too slowly and dawdling on life-saving interventions.

"We lost an unconscionable, unfathomable amount of people, and if this was any other group, this would be dealt with already," said Jordan Westfall, policy analyst for the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition and president of the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs.

Story continues below advertisement

December's total of 142 deaths is also a new high for B.C., surpassing the previous record of 128 deaths in November. Updated statistics on fentanyl-related deaths, typically released with general overdose death statistics, were not yet available due to the sheer volume of tests being conducted, Ms. Lapointe said.

Carfentanil, a large animal tranquilizer many times more potent than fentanyl, was confirmed to be in B.C. last fall and is suspected to among the causes of the recent surge. The province has no postmortem test for carfentanil, but one is expected to be developed in coming months.

At Wednesday's news conference, Mr. Lake said his government will add 60 new addiction treatment beds to the 500 promised during the last provincial election. Only about 300 have been opened. The province will also provide no-cost coverage for opioid substitution therapies such as Suboxone and methadone to those who make less than about $42,000 a year, Mr. Lake said.

Mr. Lake noted the overdose crisis is spreading to other provinces and called on the federal government to declare a public health emergency, as British Columbia did last April.

"While [Ottawa has] been helpful in looking at supervised consumption sites and looking at changes to Canada Border Services Agency around the precursors of some of these drugs, we haven't seen the response that I think this type of epidemic requires on a national scale," he said. "We know that what we're seeing here will be seen elsewhere."

Dr. Philpott called B.C.'s year-end total "shocking" and said she empathized with those who would like to see the tide turn immediately. Asked about Mr. Lake's call to declare a federal public health emergency, Dr. Philpott said that while the overdose crisis is clearly a public health threat, it does not necessarily meet the requirements to enact the federal Emergencies Act, which includes disasters such as a natural catastrophe or a public order emergency.

Story continues below advertisement

The act has not been used since it replaced the War Measures Act in 1988, and she said it would not grant the federal government powers in relation to the current crisis that it does not already have.

"We have literally responded to every request that has come our way [from provinces] and made use of all available mechanisms," Dr. Philpott said in an interview. She cited overturning the Conservative government's ban on prescription heroin and repealing a law governing supervised consumption sites, as recent examples.

"I have tremendous sympathy for the people who desire that we declare an emergency. If I felt that there was something that would do, that we're not doing now, I would certainly be happy to do so."

Provincial Health Officer Perry Kendall called December's record number "unexpected and disheartening." While British Columbia embraces harm reduction and is better positioned to respond to the crisis than some jurisdictions, he said, officials will need to discuss broadening opioid-addiction treatments such as prescription heroin, which is available only to a small number of people in Vancouver.

Dr. Philpott said she supports the treatment option and has written to provinces and territories to ask if her government can do anything further to facilitate its expansion.

"We took the important step several months ago to make sure that pharmaceutical diacetylmorphine [heroin] would be available," she said. "There is nothing from the federal government that is stopping provinces from establishing clinics where they could use some of these treatment mechanisms, including new opioid substitution therapies that we can make access to."

Story continues below advertisement

Meanwhile, Vancouver is set to vote on how to spend $3.5-million generated from an extra 0.5 per cent increase to city taxes approved in December. A staff report with initiatives and expenses that will go to council next week recommends immediately approving about $2-million for a new, three-person medic unit in the Downtown Eastside fire hall, a community policing station in Strathcona and training for frontline staff such as those at shelters, and outreach workers.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies