Politics

Singh confronts opioid crisis during B.C. campaign, stops short of promising safe supply

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh wraps up his week-long campaign in B.C. today after being confronted repeatedly by the same desperate plea: Do something to help end the opioid crisis that Vancouver police say claims one life a day in the city alone.

'Until I hear the words safe supply ... my son would die again,' B.C. dad says

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh listens as John Hedican talks about his son Ryan Hedican, who died of a fentanyl overdose in April 2017, during a campaign stop in Courtenay, B.C., on Sept. 26. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh wraps up his week-long campaign in B.C. today after being confronted repeatedly by the same desperate plea: Do something to help end the opioid crisis that Vancouver police say claims one life a day in the city alone.

Singh said that if elected next month, he would immediately declare a public health emergency and stop the criminalization of people dealing with addiction. But he stopped short of committing to regulating a safe supply of drugs. 

I've lost the ability to feel good for life.- John Hedican

"I'm open to any conversation about any solution that's going to save lives," Singh said in Vancouver on Monday. 

For Courtenay resident John Hedican, who lost his 26-year-old son, that's not good enough. 

"I didn't hear the words: safe supply," Hedican told CBC News at a rally on Thursday. "Until I hear those words, my son [Ryan] would die again."

Ryan died from fentanyl poisoning in April 2017, said Hedican. He was a third-year electrician apprentice who loved snowboarding and wakeboarding, and was the family's go to "IT guy. 

Watch: John Hedican on the opioid crisis 

John Hedican, who lost his 26-year-old son to fentanyl, says the federal leaders should be talking about a safe supply of drugs. 1:02

"If Ryan was an alcoholic, he would have had an opportunity to try and quit again," said Hedican, who has been writing to federal politicans. "But Ryan didn't get that chance because we don't offer a clean source of substances … [politicians] will not do what's needed and it's disgusting.

"I've lost the ability to feel good for life. You can't move on in life. More people are going to die in this country, today, tomorrow and the day after."

Singh talks with supporters as he makes a campaign stop with Gord Johns, the candidate for Courtenay-Alberni, in B.C., on Thursday. (The Canadian Press)

'I buried 6 of my own friends'

In Victoria, Simon Hartwell told Singh, "I buried six of my own friends"

Hartwell works 12 hours a day at a low-income housing shelter, breathing life into people overdosing. 

"I'm so tired of CPR, naloxone [an anti-overdose drug] so they can get up and then get more fentanyl and drop again the next day," Hartwell told Singh at a townhall with 500 people Friday night. "I'm exhausted. What are you going to do?"

Simon Hartwell took a break from work on Friday night to attend a townhall and share his story with Singh. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

Then there's Sierra Lawson-Bell, from Coquitlam, who works at a café where two people overdosed in the washroom in the past few years. 

"We noticed someone had been in the bathroom a long time," she said. "Someone heard a thud. They called us. We found a young man on the floor and his lips had started to turn blue." She performed CPR until paramedics arrived and resuscitated him.

But Lawson-Bell said that a year earlier, they weren't as lucky. A teenager she knew since middle school died from fentanyl.

"It was quite emotional," said Lawson-Bell. "It's hard ... I see addiction as a mental illness and it should be treated as such."

Sierra Lawson-Bell, from Coquitlam, spoke to CBC News outside a whistle stop in Duncan, B.C., on Friday about the impact of the opioid crisis on her life. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

Vancouver mayor calls for safe supply

These are just some of the personal stories Singh faced along the campaign trail in the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island. More than 4,500 people in Canada died from opioids in 2018 alone, according to the federal government. That means someone died every two hours, according to a report released last month.

The mayor of Vancouver has called on all party leaders, including the NDP, to consider a proposal to allow substance users to access pharmaceutical-grade heroin.

Kennedy Stewart wants Health Canada to allow a safe-substitute opioid to be distributed to prevent overdose deaths from potentially dangerous drugs laced with fentanyl. 

Singh met with Stewart on Wednesday at city hall.

Afterwards, Singh said, "the opioid crisis is devastating and we're losing," but didn't promise to support the plan. 

"I'm open to the discussion around how we can save lives and anything that has backing of evidence and experts. We need to be open to having that conversation."

Singh leaves B.C. later Tuesday afternoon for the East Coast. The first stop is in Montreal for the French-language debate hosted by TVA. 

  • Need help preparing for election day? We've got the information you need. Text "ELECTION" to 22222 for our election toolkit. And if you've still got questions, ask us.

About the Author

Ashley Burke

Reporter

Ashley Burke is a senior reporter with CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. Have a story idea? Email her at ashley.burke@cbc.ca

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