B.C. Premier Christy Clark brings opioid concerns to Ottawa

Premier Christy Clark, advocates and officials from B.C. are on Parliament Hill Thursday to meet with federal cabinet ministers, hoping to get more action on the province's opioid crisis.

Meeting with federal cabinet ministers and officials included advocates and families hit by overdose deaths

B.C. Premier Christy Clark, centre, is joined by advocates in Ottawa to discuss talks with federal officials about B.C.'s opioid crisis. With Clark are, from left, paramedic Marilyn Oberg, B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake, Leslie McBain, who lost her son to an overdose two years ago, Dr. Evan Wood, interim director of B.C.'s Centre on Substance Use, recovery advocate Mikaela Mamer and Judy Robertson, whose stepson is currently undergoing treatment for addiction. (Jennifer Choi/CBC)

As British Columbia reels under the weight of an opioid crisis, its politicians have come to Ottawa to encourage, cajole and perhaps even try to shame federal officials into doing more to help.

B.C. Premier Christy Clark met with federal officials on Thursday, flanked not only by her health minister and addictions experts, but also by three people whose lives have been shaken by opioids such as fentanyl —  a woman who lost her son to an overdose, another whose step-son is in recovery and a recovering addict who lost her boyfriend and best friend to drugs.

If the emotional effect of hearing their experiences isn't enough, B.C. is also asserting very public, political pressure.

The province's health minister, Terry Lake, told a private radio station yesterday that there would have been "much greater federal action" if the crisis had hit Ontario with the same force as it hit his province. 

Speaking to reporters after the hour-long meeting with federal officials Thursday, B.C.'s premier didn't go quite as far. 

"I think that British Columbia has always suffered from being the province that is farthest away from the decision-making in Canada," Clark said, but added that the crisis has caught everyone by surprise.

Clark also said she believes federal officials really do understand the urgency of the problem and said the federal health minister helped save some 3,000 lives by making it easier to access the medication that can temporarily reverse an opioid overdose.

Still Clark said there is much more the federal government can do — including banning pill presses used to make illicit drugs, spending more on policing, giving border guards more powers and reaching out to China to stop illegal drugs before they get to Canadian shores.

B.C. Premier Christy Clark, centre, attends a meeting with federal officials in Ottawa Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016 to discuss B.C.'s opioid crisis with Leslie McBain, left, a mother who lost her only son to overdose, and Mikaela Mamer, an advocate and former addict who lost her boyfriend and best friend to overdoses. On the table are photos of people who have lost their lives to opioid overdoses. (Jennifer Choi/CBC)

The B.C. Coroner's Service said Wednesday 622 people have died from drug overdoses in the first 10 months of 2016, an average of about two people every day. Sixty per cent of the overdose deaths are linked to fentanyl. The province declared a public health emergency back in April and has set up a task force to address the problem.

The meeting with federal Health Minister Jane Philpott, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale and Bill Blair, parliamentary secretary to the minister of justice, comes on the eve of a two-day opioid summit in Ottawa, co-hosted by the Canadian and Ontario governments.

Not about laying blame, says Philpott​

Federal officials said they are committed to doing more to stop the growing number of opioid overdoses, but they rejected any suggestion they've neglected the Western provinces.

"It is not lost on us that people are dying every single day," Philpott said after the meeting Thursday. "This is not about laying blame on who is doing more and who is doing less. This is about bringing together all of the partners."

Philpott gave a list of actions the federal government has taken, from approving a new safe injection site in Vancouver and renewing another, taking steps to reduce access to chemicals used in the production of fentanyl and allowing over-the-counter access to Naloxone, the medication that helps prevent overdoses.

Asked about Clark's comment on China, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said Canada wants "to have a very strong international dialogue with counterparts around the world."

He also said he's still in discussions with his provincial counterparts about putting new resources in the field to help with policing and border security. Goodale noted the problem varies from one province to another and that a "cookie cutter" solution won't work.

Safe injection sites

When it comes to more safe consumption sites, Philpott told CBC News on Wednesday that her officials have been working "every single day" to remove what she has called "unnecessary barriers."

"There is action being taken and there will be announcements about that in the coming days and weeks."

Though she said its not up to her office alone. Setting up a safe drug consumption site also requires work on the municipal and local law enforcement levels, she added.

"So there's a responsibility for provincial health authorities, for municipal health authorities and communities to make sure they've all done their part in it."

Public Health Officials believe the sites prevent drug overdose deaths and make it easier to help connect addicts with the resources to get them off drugs.

Philpott also said there would be news about regulations for pill presses "in the coming weeks."