Jenny Kwan, MP

Member of Parliament, Vancouver East

Jenny Kwan on Protecting Communities from the Opioid Overdose Crisis

On December 10, 2018, the House held what is called a "take-note" debate on the topic of the opioid crisis in Canada. I rose several times throughout the night, to say the following: 

"Madam Chair, I cannot take seriously the member's suggestion that the government cannot do any more to save lives. Just for the wannabe minister's records, I will note that in 2009, 428 people died of the H1N1 virus. Today, with the opioid crisis, over 1,400 people are dying a year in this country, yet we do not have a national health emergency. Why is that?

We heard the NDP critic, the member for Vancouver Kingsway, state very clearly that the government can exercise its right to declare a national health emergency and take immediate action to save lives.
If the Liberals really mean what they say and care deeply about the people whose lives are being lost today, why do they not take action? To suggest there is nothing more the government can do is simply bogus."

..."Mr. Chair, I thank the member for her comments and for sharing the story of the loved one in her own universe who died of an overdose.

In the government House leader's comments, she stated that overdose prevention sites work. They do work. In my own community of Vancouver East, where they started, they have not lost one life at the overdose prevention sites. If the government House leader acknowledges that they work, why does she not call on her own government to declare a national health emergency and use subsection 8(1) of the Emergencies Act to allow them to become sanctioned sites, not only in Vancouver East but throughout Canada, to save lives.
Every month, the overdose prevention sites in my own community see at least 500 people come through, and they have not lost one life. They have no federal funding. They have zero support. Health care professionals are worried about working or being involved with these sites because they could lose their licences because they are unsanctioned. Will she call on her own government to declare a national health emergency and sanction all these sites?"

..."Mr. Chair, this is perhaps one of the most important debates we can have in the House, certainly from my perspective, as the member for Vancouver East. People will know that the Downtown Eastside is what some people say is ground zero where the overdose crisis began. I saw people's lives lost. I heard the House leader's comments about the loss of people she knows. In my own community it is an everyday occurrence, and this has happened for years.

When we fought for the first safe injection site in Vancouver East, we had a demonstration in the community where we planted 1,000 crosses. Each cross had a name marked on it to remember and commemorate the lives that had been lost as a result of an overdose. That was in the 1990s.

We thought it was bad then, and we moved heaven and earth to bring the first supervised injection facility in North America to the Downtown Eastside. It was not an easy process. We had to work with the federal, provincial and municipal governments to finally get there. We established full collective action between the governments. We created the Vancouver agreement where there was a federal representative, the member from Vancouver Centre, myself as the minister then at the provincial level and the then-mayor, Mayor Philip Owen. We came together to do this and drive it through. Eventually, through much hard work, and community distrust as well, we finally got that safe site. It was the Conservatives, I might add, who levied the hate and fear against the community and actually stopped the supervised injection facility. They attempted to do that. It took the community to take the Harper government to court, and it won all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada to keep that facility, to continue to save lives.

We have come a long way since then, but the crisis has not averted itself. We now are in a situation that is way worse than it was back in the 1990s. We now have a fentanyl crisis, where people are dying so rapidly that it is absolutely breathtaking. In British Columbia, we now have over 1,400 deaths. We are looking at four people dying of an overdose every single day.

We are trying to exercise all of our resources to save lives. In that process, volunteers in our own community came forward and established the OPS, the overdose prevention sites, on their own, without resources, because they wanted to save lives. These unsanctioned sites have saved thousands and thousands of lives. Each day they see 500 people come through. Without any funding, they continue to do this work. The people working there are stressed to the limit. Every time they experience an overdose, it takes a toll on them, but there is no recognition from anyone. From the government side, there is no federal funding. We have heard from the member for Nanaimo—Ladysmith and others. She talked about how this is happening throughout the communities. OPS could exist in every single community today to save lives.

Mr. Chair, before I go further, I will be splitting my time with the member for Edmonton Strathcona.

If we truly want to do that, let us put aside partisan politics. All I heard from the government side was bragging about how great they were doing and how many millions of dollars they have put in. However, if we really want to save lives, let us just park that for a minute and say what can work. OPS works. Let us do that. We also know the Vancouver agreement worked. Let us bring forward an agreement like that in every single community where there are overdose deaths happening. Bring all levels of government together and they can sit at the table to resolve those issues in the name of saving lives. Remember, every single life that is saved is someone's daughter, someone's son, someone's family member.

I would ask the Conservative members to remember this. Dead people do not detox. We need to understand that and take this issue all the way to what needs to be done, which is to recognize that this is completely a health care issue and not a criminal justice issue. With that, we can save lives."

...."Mr. Chair, I have not heard one government member offer a suggestion outside of what the government has already been doing for this crisis. It is a national health emergency. Under what other circumstances can we say that people are dying everywhere across this country? The magnitude of the situation takes my breath away. How can it possibly be that we do not say that there is a national health emergency going on? When we say that we value lives, those lives matter. Let us call it what it is, a national health emergency.

New Democrats have proposed other suggestions tonight. My colleague, the health critic, the member for Vancouver-Kingsway, called on the government to sue the pharmaceutical companies. I just met with a constituent of mine whose daughter became addicted to oxycontin after four surgeries when she was 14 years old. After each surgery, her dose increased. She became increasingly worried and went to see her doctor, who cut her off cold turkey. Guess what? Her daughter ended up in the Downtown Eastside buying street drugs, addicted and homeless today.

Why are we not making the people accountable? The pharmaceutical companies need to be held to account and provide answers to the family members. That is another suggestion government members can undertake. We should have O.P.S. everywhere in our communities. We should have no-sanction sites and make sure we can start to save lives. Those are some of the suggestions. Perhaps the government can take action."

..."Mr. Chair, in terms of moving forward with this crisis, the only suggestions came from the New Democrat side, and I am not just saying that because I am a New Democrat. Honestly, the government did not offer any suggestions.

I have another suggestion for the government. Why do we not actually make available drug replacement therapy? We should make it available not as a pilot project but throughout our communities so people can get the treatment they need. That too will save lives. If we take action on all of this, something can happen. There is no silver bullet, and I am not suggesting that. Rather, it is a whole host of these actions that can make the difference. To save one life means we have made a difference, and it will have made this debate worthwhile.

There is a host of suggestions for the government side. I look forward to it realizing any of the actions we have suggested."