No mention of opioid crisis in federal mandate letter ‘unbelievable’ to one advocate

Advocacy group says failure to mention toxic drugs slows progress

As the nation gets a new minister for mental health and addictions, advocates are alarmed her mandate doesn’t explicitly include addressing the ever expanding opioid crisis in Canada.

Carolyn Bennett was named the Minister of Mental Health and Addictions in October, but the mandate letter given to her has no specific mention of the crisis.

Prominent advocate and co-founder of Moms Stop the Harm, B.C.’s Leslie McBain, said Health Canada understands the issue but is halted by politics.

“It was unbelievable to not mention, not even one word, about the epidemic of drug deaths. I still am in disbelief that [the federal government] would just completely ignore it,” McBain told Kelowna10.

“I was a little bit hopeful when I heard there would be the Minister of Mental Health and Addictions in a federal sense. However, we know that here in B.C., having that ministry, has done nothing. Things have only gotten worse.”

In the mandate letter, the word opioid doesn’t appear at all, and harm reduction only comes up once when referring to supporting efforts to provide access to evidence-based treatment.

A statement from Bennett's office said the prime minister has given her a clear mandate to advance "a comprehensive strategy to address problematic substance use."

The core of that strategy involves combatting the overdose crisis, the statement read, calling it "one of the greatest public health crises" facing the country. It admits there is more to do to end the "parallel pandemic."

The comprehensive strategy will include "a multifaceted approach including safe supply, the reduction of harms, and resources to divert people who use drugs away from the criminal justice system and towards supportive and trusted relationships."

It said her ministry will review any request to decriminalize the personal possession of drugs "on a case-by-case basis, as well as new ways to address the toxic drug supply."

McBain said although the provincial government is starting to make progress by moving ahead on rolling out safe supply, it’s not enough to help the thousands of people who still need to get their drugs from the street.

“It’s absolutely all political and also there’s stigma involved, and morality involved because there’s still that thinking that people that are addicted, it’s their own fault,” she explained.

She hopes people understand that anyone can become addicted to drugs and the real danger is the increasing toxicity of the drug supply. She wants to get rid of the stigma surrounding substance usage.

McBain’s son, Jordan Miller, died from an accidental overdose in 2014. He became addicted to the pain medication Oxycodone after it was prescribed to him by his family doctor following a back injury.

“In Moms Stop the Harm, across Canada we have over 3,000 members. Probably half have had their loved ones die of these toxic drugs,” McBain said.

“There’s so many things for the public to learn, but it’s not that difficult. I hope people would educate themselves and look into it deeply.”

With all levels of government putting a strong focus on combatting the COVID-19 pandemic, McBain is frustrated there doesn’t appear to be the same priority in dealing with the opioid crisis.

“When you have more people dying of toxic drugs in some areas, and if you look at the statistics, they’re very close in terms of [COVID-19 related] deaths,” she explained.

There have been 1,782 deaths connected to toxic drugs in B.C. for the first ten months of the year. That exceeds the 1,765 deaths recorded throughout 2020.

“This has been going on for five years, this toxic drug crisis. In five years, the only trend has been that it’s gotten worse.”

Published 2021-12-22 by Jordan Brenda

Get a fresh daily look

See what’s happening in and around our city, and the people who call it home.

Our newsroom abides by the RTNDA Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct and follows the Canadian Press Stylebook. If you have any questions or concerns, or would like to send us a news tip, please contact us.

Kelowna10 is division of Pattison Media, and strives to achieve the highest ethical standards in all that we do.