This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
A new Toronto committee created in response to the opioid crisis in Canada is meeting for the first time this afternoon. Called the Toronto Overdose Early Warning and Alert Partnership, the formation of the group was sparked by a conversation between Toronto Mayor John Tory and Vancouver's mayor, Gregor Robertson.
"I don't think that we can sit back and be complacent for one moment," Tory said during an interview. "The first thing you have to do is to form a partnership that sort of says everybody is going to be at the table, exchanging information, exchanging knowledge."
While some language and reporting surrounding the committee's first meeting suggests the opioid crisis has yet to reach Ontario, for those on the frontlines, it's already here.
"There are people using heroin that they know is cut with fentanyl, there are people who are using fentanyl that they have bought off the street… We are definitely seeing it," Zoe Dodd, who works at the South Riverdale Community Health Centre in Toronto, told CBC News.
Though recent numbers on opioid-related overdose deaths are unavailable in Ontario, what we know so far is troubling. Ontario reported 166 deaths linked to fentanyl in 2015, according to preliminary data from the chief coroner's office. 2016 numbers are not yet available in Ontario, but in two provinces known to be hit hardest by the opioid crisis, BC and Alberta, numbers have been climbing since last year. Fentanyl was linked to more than 500 overdose deaths in BC and Alberta combined in 2015. For 2016, BC reported 374 deaths related to fentanyl so far; between January and October of the same year, Alberta reported 193 fentanyl-related deaths.
According to Dr. Barbara Yaffe, Toronto's acting medical officer of health, there were 45 fentanyl-related OD deaths in the city in 2015—up from 23 deaths the previous year.
"We don't know if it's all related to fentanyl overdose—people do have a lot of vulnerabilities when they're street-involved, when they're on the streets, when they're homeless," Dodd said. "We do have a high population of homeless people in Toronto, just like Vancouver. Some of the issues that Vancouver is experiencing have also to do with the fact that people are homeless and that they're much more vulnerable to overdose."
Dr. David Juurlink, a drug safety researcher at University of Toronto medicine, said that a committee like the one Tory has set up is a "good idea."
"The response to the opioid crisis is going to require collaboration across all levels of government, and every large municipality should have a committee of this sort," Juurlink told VICE. "That said, the value of a committee is in its accomplishments, not its existence. I'll be very interested to see what actions this committee takes."
Today's meeting in Toronto will likely be the first of many of its kind and will include first responders, the coroner's office, public health workers, community organizations, and others. Tory has also said that he plans to bring up the issue of fentanyl at a big-city mayors meeting this year.
"If this was some other kind of illness that was entering Canada and killing hundreds of people... I think you'd have more focused attention being paid to it by everybody," Tory said. "I just think I have to join together in common cause with people like Mayor Robertson and say this is a national crisis."
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