While speaking at the International Harm Reduction Conference in Montreal yesterday, Canadian Minister of Health Jane Philpott spoke to the devastating impact of fentanyl and other opioids in the country.
"We know that at minimum in Canada, there were 2,300 Canadians that died last year of an opioid overdose," Philpott said to a crowd of harm reduction workers, activists, and others. "The death toll is worse than any other infectious epidemic in Canada, including the peak of AIDS deaths, since the Spanish flu that took the lives of 50,000 people a century ago."
Philpott's statement was a nod to what Jordan Westfall, president of Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs (CAPUD), said at the conference regarding these statistics. The opioid crisis has also claimed more lives than the AIDS epidemic did at its height in the US.
Before stating this, Philpott opened with a criticism of the previous federal government's shortcomings in dealing with the opioid crisis. In 2016, 343 died in Alberta from fentanyl overdoses, 931 died in BC due to drug ODs, and many others died across the country from similar causes. In Ontario, about two people a day die due to opioid overdose.
"I will be the first to acknowledge that our country ignored innovators in our domestic context, and we shut out some of the most important voices in this discussion," Philpott said as crowd members held up banners, including those bearing the hashtag "#TheyTalkWeDie."
Alexander McClelland, who's been working in activism surrounding AIDS and people who use drugs for over ten years and has been living with HIV for about 20 years said while it was "powerful for her to acknowledge how much of a crisis it is," he was disappointed in some aspects of her speech.
During her speech, Philpott said that the country needs more data on the overdose crisis.
"It's just shocking to hear that all they want to do is more research when people on the ground don't need more research—people are dying," McClelland said. "That was frankly fucked up to hear, especially from someone who is calling themselves an ally of the community."
Philpott was interrupted during her speech by a disgruntled audience member and people were seen turning their backs on her as a form of protest against the government's lack of action in dealing with the opioid crisis.
While Philpott did not speak about alternative drug policy such as decriminalization or legalization and regulation of drugs other than cannabis, she did mention harm reduction's role.
"When it comes to drug policy, I am proud to affirm here tonight that our government fully supports harm reduction as a key pillar in that policy."
But for McClelland, Philpott talking about Canada's failed approach to drug policy but leaving out talk of decriminalizing drugs ignores the viewpoint of people who've been working on the frontlines.
"If Philpott was actually an ally of the community, she'd be calling for the decriminalization of drugs. She's not even going anywhere near that, they're not even talking about it when people on the ground know that that's what they need."
McClelland's mention of alternative drug policy echoes what harm reduction worker Zoë Dodd asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in VICE's talk with him last month: "Will you legalize all drugs so that we can end the overdose epidemic and save lives?"
"I'm not there yet," Trudeau replied.
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