Canada's 2019 election shows that nobody in any position of power cares how many drug users die

There were more than 4,500 opioid-overdose deaths across the country in 2018, there's a federal election this month, and no political party is taking the crisis seriously

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      The drug-overdose crisis is the most acute health emergency that Canada has faced in a generation. More than 12,800 people have died of an opioid overdose since Health Canada began counting in January 2016.

      There are now so many fatal overdoses that this single cause of death has stalled the average life expectancy for the entire population. “Life expectancy at birth did not increase from 2016 to 2017 for either males or females, a first in over four decades,” Statistics Canada warned last May.

      There’s a federal election less than one week away, on October 21. And yet more than 4,000 fatal overdoses each year is something that no one is talking about.

      The word “overdose” appears in the incumbent Liberal party’s 85-page election platform exactly once.

       “The opioid crisis is the greatest public health emergency since the AIDS epidemic,” it reads. Then there are only another two paragraphs.

      The Liberals promise “new investments” in treatment services and briefly outline a plan to divert people charged with possession away from the criminal system and into “drug treatment court”. In addition, injection sites will hopefully operate with longer hours. That’s it.

      The Conservative party’s 2019 platform gives the opioid epidemic a little more space, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Andrew Scheer’s plan to reduce overdose deaths appears to be nothing more than the same tough-on-crime, abstinence-only approach to addiction that’s failed in every jurisdiction across North America for more than half a century now.

      There’s also almost no money behind the Conservative’s overdose-response plan. While the Liberals have promised hundreds of millions of dollars of new investments in drug-treatment programs, the CPC has only pledged $10 million here and another $12 million there.

      In the NDP’s platform, the overdose crisis actually receives one entire page.

      “In government, we will declare a public health emergency and commit to working with all levels of government, experts and Canadians to end the criminalization and stigma of drug addiction, so that people struggling with addiction can get the help they need without fear of arrest, while getting tough on the real criminals—those who traffic in and profit from illegal drugs,” it reads. “We’ll work with the provinces to support overdose prevention sites and expand access to treatment on demand for people struggling with addiction. We will also launch an investigation into the role drug companies may have played in fueling the opioid crisis, and seek meaningful financial compensation.”

      NDP leader Jagmeet Singh (centre) and NDP candidate Don Davies met with people who use drugs during a walk through Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in November 2017.
      Travis Lupick

      This makes the NDP the only major political party in Canada to actually propose a big idea that breaks from the status quo. Health professionals in B.C. argue that decriminalization could help reduce overdose deaths.

      The dangerous synthetic-opioids fentanyl and carfentanil have changed everything for people who use drugs. Overdose deaths have skyrocketed. Yet the Liberals and the Conservatives have only proposed minor improvements on things that are already happening. (Actually, Scheer’s opposition to supervised-injection sites would likely mean even less action on overdoses.) Based on what’s included in the Liberal and Conservative platforms, there is no reason to think that either party would do anything to significantly reduce overdose deaths. Fentanyl completely changed the game and the NDP appears to be the only major party that understands that and thus is willing to try something different from existing policies that have failed so spectacularly for so long now.

      The Green party’s plan for the opioid crisis is quite similar to the NDP’s.

      “Address the opioid crisis as a health-care issue, not a criminal issue, by declaring a national health emergency,” the Greens' platform reads. “Drug possession should be decriminalized, ensuring people have access to a screened supply and the medical support they need to combat their addictions. Increase funding to community-based organizations to test drugs and make Naloxone kits widely available to treat overdoses.”

      The election platform of Maxine Bernier’s People’s Party doesn’t mention the opioid epidemic at all.

      I couldn’t find any mention of drugs or overdose deaths in the Bloc Quebecois’s platform, either.

      Health Canada

      Canada’s political parties aren’t the only organizations ignoring overdose deaths this election cycle. Mainstream media outlets are largely doing the same.

      During the October 7 English-language leaders debate, overdose deaths received no discussion at all.

      A number of media corporations’ comparisons of party platforms similarly fail to give the crisis any sort of prominence.

      CBC News’ election guide compares party positions in 19 categories. Overdoses is not one of them. Maclean’s comparison of party promises breaks party positions into no less than 25 categories. Overdoses is not one of them, either. The same goes for Bloomberg News and its 16 categories comparing party positions: no mention of overdose deaths. The Globe and Mail’s guide to the 2019 election also leaves out any mention of overdose deaths. The Toronto Star’s election guide isn’t as organized as other outlets’, but I couldn’t find any discussion of the opioid epidemic there, either.

      There's a famous photograph of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus that was taken in 1993. Seven men are wearing white and facing the camera. More than 100 others are wearing black and looking away. The photograph's original caption published in the San Francisco Chronicle reads: "The men in white are the surviving members of the original San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus The others represent those lost to AIDS."

      The message: San Francisco's gay community did not "survive" the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and '90s. It was decimated. Thousands and then tens of thousands died as a result of government inaction that was deeply rooted in stigma toward people who were gay.

      Cities hard hit by Canada's overdose crisis, like Vancouver, are watching the extermination of an entire generation of people who use drugs.

      And based on the attention overdoses have received ahead of the 2019 election, nobody in a position of power cares.