British Columbia

Longtime B.C. provincial health officer Perry Kendall announces retirement

B.C.'s provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall is retiring after almost 20 years on the job.

Harm-reduction advocate presided over opening of Insite, North America's first legal supervised injection site

Dr. Perry Kendall is retiring after almost 20 years as B.C.'s provincial health officer. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

B.C.'s provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall is retiring after almost 20 years on the job.

Kendall made the announcement Wednesday. The role will be taken over by Dr. Bonnie Henry on Jan. 31.

Kendall, 74, said he's looking forward to an active retirement.

"I've had a long, satisfying career in public health," he said. "I would like to spend a bit more time gardening, painting, spending time with my wife, and maybe doing some consulting now and then."

Kendall was appointed provincial health officer in 1999.

A voice for harm reduction

A longtime advocate for harm reduction, Kendall has been one of B.C.'s most outspoken voices on the ongoing opioid overdose crisis. He declared the situation a public health emergency in 2016.

It's been a concern for Kendall throughout his career. In 2003, he presided over the opening of Insite in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside — the first legal supervised injection site in North America.

Since then, he has continued to work closely with Insite and has repeatedly said that it saves lives.

Kendall initially announced his retirement in 2014, but decided to stay on a few more years. He said the then-impending overdose crisis was part of that decision.

"We were aware of it [and] it didn't seem to be getting any better," Kendall said. "I think staying on, I was actually able to make a contribution there, I hope."

Dr. Perry Kendall has had a long career in public health. He's seen here in an archival shot from 1998, just prior to his appointment as provincial health officer. (CBC)

But Kendall said there is still much to be done to stem the tide of opioid overdoses. One of the main challenges now, he says, is changing public opinion.

"People who are dying from overdoses are not the people who we can reach with naloxone," Kendall said, referring to a drug used to temporarily reverse the effect of an opioid overdose.

"Over 80 per cent of the people who are now dying are dying because they are using drugs alone.

"I think a lot of that has to do with the stigma around illegal drug use and drug dependency."

To that end, Kendall says one of his key accomplishments as provincial health officer has been working with police services to see substance abuse as a health issue rather than a crime.

A long public health career

Kendall was born in the U.K., where he went to medical school. He moved to Canada in 1972 to work as a doctor in Toronto.

Since then, he has worked in various public health positions in Ontario and B.C. This has included work with both provinces' health authorities, as well as serving as Toronto's chief medical officer for six years in the late 1980s and early '90s.

Kendall was awarded the Order of British Columbia in 2005 for his work in public health.

Dr. Bonnie Henry has been appointed B.C. provincial health officer after Dr. Perry Kendall announced his retirement from the position. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Henry to start in February

Dr. Bonnie Henry will start as the provincial health officer when Kendall steps down at the end of the month.

Henry has served as the deputy provincial health officer since 2014. She has also held several directorial positions at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.

Prior to that, she was the associate medical officer of health in Toronto. She was the operational lead during the city's SARS outbreak in 2003.

With files from CBC Radio One's On the Coast.