Were ageist cabinet choices by Justin Trudeau a factor in slow federal response to fentanyl-linked overdose deaths?

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      This morning, the Liberal government is finally going to explain how it will loosen federal restrictions making it virtually impossible to open new supervised-injection sites.

      Health Minister Jane Philpott and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale will speak to reporters in Ottawa at 12:30 p.m., Vancouver time.

      It comes after more than 600 British Columbians have died of illicit drug overdoses this year. Many of those have been linked to the synthetic opiate fentanyl.

      The Trudeau government is expected to roll back aspects of the Conservative government's Bill C-2, also known as An Act to Amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (Respect for Communities Act).

      It was imposed in response to a Supreme Court of Canada decision thwarting then prime minister Stephen Harper's desire to close Insite. It's a legal Vancouver supervised-injection site in the Downtown Eastside.

      The loosening of the rules also comes after the B.C. government decided to go it alone and open overdose centres to cope with the crisis. And this only came after community activists had to set up pop-up sites in Downtown Eastside alleys to prevent more deaths.

      Research published in peer-reviewed journals for years has already demonstrated that supervised-injection sites reduce the transmission of blood-borne illnesses, such as HIV. They reduce fatal and nonfatal overdoses.

      In addition, Insite has been shown to reduce street disorder and increase access to health services for marginalized people. And it saves costs to the health, social service, and correctional systems.

      Research has demonstrated that Insite saves lives and reduces street disorder.

      On the federal campaign trail in 2015, the Liberals made a big deal of pursuing evidence-based policies backed up by research.

      Moreover, the Liberal health critic at the time, Vancouver Centre MP Dr. Hedy Fry, was well aware of the shortcomings of the Harper government's clampdown on allowing new supervised-injection facilities.

      In a 2013 interview with the Georgia Straight, Fry outlined many problems with the Conservatives' legislation. 

      Under that law, police had to agree that the supervised-injection site won’t disrupt the peace. But the RCMP, which is contracted to provide policing services in many Vancouver suburbs, was steadfastly opposed to these facilities. And there was no requirement that police opposition needed to be backed up by scientific data.

      However, Fry noted, proponents would have to obtain demographic and scientific data justifying the site.

      “This burden of proof must be community-based and locally and regionally based, to the extent that you’re going to have to do a complete study,” Fry said. “But to do the study, you’re going to have to get the bubble zone created to allow the illegal drugs to be used.”

      As the Liberal health critic, Dr. Hedy Fry highlighted the perils of the Conservative government's legislation around supervised injection sites.
      Travis Lupick

      In Fry's view, this amounted to a Catch-22. You couldn't do a study if you can't allow drugs to be used in the study area.

      Fry has had a long track record in dealing with these issues. In the late 1990s, she was instrumental in the creation of the Vancouver Agreement, which was the first serious multigovernmental initiative to address illicit drug addiction in the Downtown Eastside as a health issue.

      So why did it take the Liberal government so long to address the shortcomings in the Conservatives' legislation?

      One plausible explanation is Trudeau's decision to fill his cabinet with so many inexperienced MPs.

      Rather than appointing Fry as health minister, Trudeau put in a rookie, Philpott, the MP for Markham-Stouffville.

      Philpott, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, had extensive experience practising medicine in Africa with a faith-based NGO and with Doctors Without Borders. Philpott was widely admired for her advocacy for refugees. But unlike Fry, she had no experience addressing the drug-overdose crisis in Vancouver.

      Trudeau selected Philpott, in part, because she was one of many "star candidates" he had attracted to the party.

      As his Vancouver cabinet ministers, Trudeau named two other so-called stars, Jody Wilson-Raybould and Harjit Sajjan. Both were rookie MPs, though each had distinguished themselves in their previous occupations. And both were recruited by Trudeau.

      A political veteran, Vancouver Quadra MP, Joyce Murray, was left on the backbenches.

      B.C health minister Terry Lake and federal health minister Jane Philpott were pushed by Downtown Eastside activists creating pop-up injection sites to save addicts' lives.
      Travis Lupick

      Trudeau named many other political newcomers to important portfolios. Bill Morneau became the finance minister. Catherine McKenna was put in charge of environment. Mélanie Joly was given the reins for Canadian Heritage, which included responsibility for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. And Maryam Monself became the minister for democratic reform.

      With so many fresh faces, the cabinet looked good on TV after the swearing-in ceremony.

      But some wondered how it would measure up without the experience of political veterans like Fry, Ottawa South MP David McGuinty, and Malpeque MP Wayne Easter.

      The answer came with the fentanyl crisis.

      The Liberal government prevaricated. The body count mounted. And the law is only being changed after the B.C. government decided to set up supervised-injection sites on its own.

      In the meantime, many families have lost loved ones due to fentanyl.

      Given the gravity of the drug-addiction problem across the country, the misnamed Respect for Communities law should have been amended last spring.

      And it's not a stretch to conclude that ageist cabinet choices by Trudeau were a factor in the delay.

      If you arrive on Parliament Hill and you can't even find the bathroom, it will take a while to figure out how to change draconian legislation that's killing Canadians.