Government Inexplicably Repoliticizes All-Party Agreement on Drug Toxicity Crisis

Feb 28, 2023 | 42-4, Blog, Governance, Legislature, Motions, Video

Last year, then Interim-Leader of the BC Liberals Shirley Bond, and BC Green Leader Sonia Furstenau, called on the BC NDP government to empower the Health Committee to study the drug toxicity and poisoning crisis and make recommendations to the Legislative Assembly.

The effort was entirely about de-politicizing the discussion. We had seen dozens politicized questions lobbed at government in Question Period and get volleyed back. The only thing that was moving was the gap between political parties. It was not helping improve the situation.

Last November the province received the final report with 37 recommendations. They were developed by consensus across party lines. Common ground was found.

And then inexplicably, almost as if the government could not stand the all-Party agreement they tabled this motion which has only had the effect of taking significant steps backward and re-politicizing this sensitive issue.


I rise to speak to Motion 17, with respect to the motion that was tabled by the Government House Leader yesterday, asking that “this House affirm” — or reaffirm, I guess, in this case — “its support for a spectrum of addictions care, such as lifesaving harm reduction measures — including safe consumption sites, decriminalization and safer supply — and for a rapid, unprecedented expansion of drug treatment and recovery spaces.”

It’s unfortunate that we’re using this time to debate this motion work that, frankly, has already been done, in terms of the coalition-building or the consensus-building process that an all-party committee completed last November.

I’m not sure what the point of this motion is, other than maybe politics, and that, to me, is very problematic. The work that the then Leader of the Official Opposition, interim leader at that time, and my colleague, the Leader of the Third Party, undertook to encourage the government and to work with the government to create an all-party committee was done under the approach and with the approach that we need to depoliticize this work.

When we have 2,200 British Columbians pass away in 2022, just a few less than the record number that passed away in 2021, when we’re seeing, still, six British Columbians passing away each day due to the illicit and toxic drug supply, when we’re counting numbers like 11,000 British Columbians who have passed away since the 2016 declaration of an emergency in this province, when we see many countless other British Columbians being poisoned on a daily basis, sometimes multiple times a day, because of the increased toxicity, it was incumbent upon this House to depoliticize that discussion.

[11:15 a.m.]
That was, indeed, the entire point of asking it to move from the toxicity of question period to the Douglas Fir Room, where committee deliberations happen in a much less partisan, far less charged manner.

That work was good work. It was months in the making. It was a consensus-building process intentionally designed to build consensus across party lines. The people that are dying, the families who are losing family members can ill afford the political division that you see by this red carpet further hampering action from the government. Shame on this government for dragging this conversation back and re-politicizing it after so much work was done to depoliticize it.

The things that are written in this motion, as has been pointed out, are all in this list of consensus recommendations, 37 of them. I know that the process started and there wasn’t consensus. That’s committee work. Over and over and over again, they deliberate in camera to come up with a list of recommendations that all the members of this place can get behind. And now, here, what we’re doing is separating. We see: “Well, for 16 years, you ill-prepared British Columbians to be able to deal with this toxic drug crisis. For six years, we’ve done this or we’ve done that” — drawing the line, defining the line, separating the parties, trying to create political advantage of, frankly, a public tragedy. I find it distasteful.

I find it distasteful to the members of the committee, who spent hours listening to the testimony of British Columbians, of stakeholders, of experts, academics, people with lived experiences. It’s certainly distasteful to all of the people who provided that testimony, that they would then see their work be dragged back out here onto the floor of this Legislature and to the very same situation that we were faced with prior to the calling of that committee starting to take shape and take form here on this chamber floor again.

I think back to last year, after that committee was called. Once the debate stopped showing up here at question period for 30 minutes each day, questions being lobbed across this way, responses being volleyed back — the minute that that committee started its work, those questions ended in here. To me, that was a success because the questions and the responses didn’t help us advance any further. Accusations from this side, defensive responses from that side: we were not making any progress on actually solving the challenging problem that far too many families face in this province.

By removing it and by giving a committee the responsibility for taking on this important work, the Premier, the Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, the Minister of Health, the government cabinet were able to successfully depoliticize this and send it away to have good work be done.

I really see this as a process where the survivors of this incredible situation that we face, with the increased ramping up toxicity, where they’re being forced to relive the trauma over and over and over again and now this debate here again today…. It’s not for, really, the purposes of the debate because, as has been pointed out, we agree.

[11:20 a.m.]
There is a consensus list of 37 recommendations that are right here. They include life-saving harm reduction measures, including parameters around safe consumption, around decriminalization, safer supply, the de-stigmatization of people who use addictive substances, support for the rapid and unprecedented expansion of drug treatment. That’s what all of these recommendations represent.

The only thing that’s left is the execution of these recommendations. The delivery of them, either through policy or through legislation or through programs and services. I’m not sure what benefit this debate is having, other than to spend time in here, because remarkably, we’re in the third week of this legislative session, and yet again, no bills tabled this morning. No bills tabled yesterday. No bills tabled Thursday. No bills tabled Wednesday.

Actually, that’s unfair to the opposition members who have been standing up and tabling private member’s bills. We’ve got a few. Members of the official opposition have a few. So, there are bills to be debated, but instead, for the first time in my six years, or 5.75 years, in this Legislature, when we should be debating bills — this would be normally the time where we are either in second reading or committee stage of bill debate — we’re here debating motions, government motions, to fill time.

The one that they dragged up here…. I was very grateful for the one that they brought forward last week. It’s been a part of the program that we’ve been trying to advance in terms of reforming the democracy of this institution. I spoke supportive of that motion and look forward to it being sent to a committee. It’s curious though. It seems like a completely unnecessary measure when every other committee got members added to it and a job given to it by the government by moving a quick motion by the Government House Leader, and off we go and the members of the committee get on with the work. Never before have I seen a committee debated here.

Now, I suppose, as I mentioned in my previous debate, it’s of benefit to the momentum-building process that needs to happen with these committees, where we want to see a positive outcome. We’d like this place to become more democratic in its function. That’s fantastic. We’ve got members of the government side saying that they support it. We’ve got members of the opposition saying they support it. We support it. We’re going to move on and hopefully, by October, get some good reforms on paper, and then it will be up to the government to do the work. That’s the committee process.

So, for the second motion that we’re debating, they’ve undertaken that work. They have the recommendation. We have dozens of pages of a report with the discussions, with an outline of the deliberations, with an exhaustive list of recommendations built on all-party consensus, and the only part that was missing was the partisan fight that happens in this place, apparently. The government had to circle back around and re-dredge up all the old battles.

Shocking that the previous government left them with nothing. Shocking that now we have a government who is acting on all of the things. It’s a narrative that gets told and retold in this place over and over and over again. But it’s not the work. The work is the work. Delivering on the recommendations is the work. In fact, what this debate is doing is it’s taking us backwards in time. It’s unnecessarily creating divisions where they need not be.

I sense it’s because actually, the official opposition came forward with some ideas, and so now we have to…. I guess we can’t possibly have it where the other ideas are in conflict or whatever it is. Now, we have to show the definition between the parties. We’ve got to make this about a campaign. But it’s not necessary, and it’s not supporting the families whose children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and parents have a health care need that needs to be met by a government whose responsibility is to meet health care needs.

[11:25 a.m.]

Often when we hear government’s responses to the questions or government’s responses in this debate, speeches that have happened on this motion, there is the context of the things that they have been doing. Very rarely is there a context of the size and scope of the problem. So, while we have an exhaustive list of actions being taken, we have no context as to whether or not they are enough, they are good enough, they are far from good enough. Maybe they’re more than good enough. There’s no context that’s been provided. That is what has framed this debate on motion 17 as well — a list of actions, no context.

The coroner has come out repeatedly…. If we want to look for context on what the scale and scope of the problem is in this province, we need to, I think, listen to what the coroner is saying. In the last coroner’s report….This was reported on in the CBC. Dr. Paxton Bach, he’s the co–medical director of the B.C. Centre on Substance Use said, I think, some things that this government can take to heart and act upon.

First of all, an apology. I think that it would be nice to see that be reiterated here, as this conversation gets brought back out onto the floor in order for us to argue about it again, when we had gotten past arguing about it.

“To the families of the 45 individuals who passed away in the last week alone…” — this was in the last week of January, 45 individuals passed away in that week — “…to their friends and their colleagues and their communities and loved ones: my heart goes out to you, and I’m so sorry that we are continuing to fail.”

That’s not the story that’s being told right now about the situation. We’ve just heard about the remarkable progress. Yet the co–medical director of the B.C. Centre on Substance Use is apologizing where the government, frankly, should be apologizing.

He goes on: “I hope that we can sit with that grief and that outrage. I hope that every citizen of the province reflects on this report and feels that outrage and uses that to drive the advocacy that is needed to generate change.”

That advocacy had started. The report had been written. The recommendations had been tabled. And here we are, being dragged back in here to fill time so we can argue about it again.

On decriminalization measures, chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said the following on the change for decriminalization, which came into effect the week that this article was written, the last week of January — a month ago. “The change is a ‘key first step,’ but ‘only one measure of many that are necessary to end this crisis.'”

Is that what’s happening in here today? Are we doing the work? Are we talking about the work that needs to be done? Are we rehashing what has already been outlined and on the record?

Because it doesn’t feel like we’re doing the work that should be done. That’s in the hands of the government. Only the government has the power and is empowered to actually do the actions that are outlined in this.

Bach continues: “The province needs a critical and comprehensive response plan with ‘everything’ from a regulated safe supply, effective patient-centred treatment to investment in upstream drivers of substance use in order to prevent use.”

People are still giving this government advice, still advocating on what needs to be done. Nowhere in the conversation was “drag this back out for the House to debate and fight over again.” Nobody I’ve seen has said that this would be a good way of doing this work.

[11:30 a.m.]
When you had just gained the support of all of the House, drag it out here and beat each other up over it again. Nobody is saying that’s a good idea, yet here we are. This is what we’re doing.

The damage of this needs to be noted, the potential damage that’s caused, dragging us backwards.

I’m just going to say this because I believe that this motion here today is a government response to a proposal that was put forward by the official opposition. I feel like it’s a good time to make a comment about that proposal that was put forward by the official opposition.

Certainly, we have heard over and over and over again that access to treatment is one of the critical obstacles for people who are suffering from substance use and abuse, addiction and health care needs. The ability to get treatment when you need it, where you need it, is one of the key challenges that people have, and it’s costing us lives.

The official opposition offered an idea: let’s privatize it, essentially. Paraphrasing — it was more detailed than that. The one caution that I have and feel needs to be on the record and on the debate of this is that we need to be very careful. It was pointed out to me that it will be public funds that are paying for this. Don’t worry, it’s public money that’s paying for it.

We do not want to create a pipeline for an industry. It feels like we need to keep feeding at people who are suffering. That is not the job of this government. The job of this government and the job of the provincial government is to ensure that people are well. And if we create an industry around treatment, we’ll find ourselves in a similar situation that we found ourselves in the other privatized industries that we’ve created that then need us to continue to feed the industry.

We might be able to find some comfort in that it’s public money that is going to be paying for the treatment of these folks. But once we start to create privatized treatment, then there will be a need for us to continue to feed the industry, and that’s very dangerous. We need to be focused on ensuring people are well. We need to be making sure that we’re covering off all of the continuum of someone in this process. We need to really be starting the process, and the investments need to be really on the prevention side of it, at the very beginning.

There’s more that will be said on the plan. I think that the plan that the official opposition have produced, the government is probably going to have a response later today in the budget to that plan. There are a lot of discussions, but I just really felt uncomfortable not mentioning the feelings that I had around the announcement that was made, since I believe that this motion today is in response to the official opposition’s plan. This is the government’s response — to spend time further dividing this House rather than bringing us together.

True leadership brings together. True leadership uses the committees. True leadership trusts the work of the committees, takes the recommendations and implements them. Too often we see committees being used as a way to distract the conversation, set it aside, move it aside. The reports come in, and then they collect dust.

I really hope that later today what we hear from this government is leadership on the aspects of this report that are fully under their responsibility for implementing now and that we stop using this time in this space in here to foment mistrust, to erode the confidence of people in this institution and to take good work and undermine it, which is effectively what’s happening in the Legislature as we debate Motion 17.

With that, I take my seat and thank you for the opportunity. HÍSW̱ḴE SIÁM.


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