'Our people are dying': Those at centre of opioid crisis want more than political promises
VANCOUVER -- James Harry lives on the frontlines of Canada’s opioid crisis.
The Vancouver man has been sober for five years. An addiction to crack cocaine nearly killed him.
“It took over my life. It destroyed everything I had,” he told CTV’s Chief Anchor and Senior Editor Lisa LaFlamme on Tuesday.
Walking through Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, considered the epicentre of the country’s opioid crisis, Harry points out to the doorstep littered with used needles where he used to get high. He’s all too familiar with the deadly toll of fentanyl, which is often laced into street drugs.
British Columbia has seen the highest drug-related deaths in the country. Last year alone, more than 4,500 Canadians died from opioid deaths. That’s one death every two hours.
In the four years since the 2015 election, nearly 13,000 people have died of opioid overdoses.
Despite those deaths, the opioid crisis has not been declared a national public health emergency.
Harry says such a declaration is long overdue.
“Our people are dying. People are dying down here. And if that's not a public health emergency, I don't know what is,” Harry said.
The federal parties are divided as to how to confront the opioid crisis.
The Liberals have proposed more funding for provinces to invest in programs, such as supervised safe-injection sites. The Conservatives oppose that approach and promise to invest in treatment and recovery centres. The Green Party has said it would decriminalize all drug possession. The NDP’s platform says it would “end the criminalization and stigma of drug addiction.”
But federal politics is hardly on the minds of those living in the Downtown Eastside.
“They're just trying to survive each day. Every minute, every hour, every day. They probably have no idea who's running,” Harry said.
Harry grew up in Haisla First Nation, more than 1,400 kilometres north of Vancouver. After overcoming his drug addiction, he joined an outreach program in hopes of saving others in his community battling similar addictions.
Edwin Pfoh said that he’s had a profound impact on their life.
“He's actually saved my life. If it wasn't for James right now, I wouldn't be on this planet,” Pfoh said.
The opioid crisis has led to misinformation and negative attacks along the campaign trail. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has accused Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau of having a “secret plan” to legalize all illicit drug use as a means to confront the crisis. The Liberals have made it clear that they have no such plan.
For the moment, safe injection sites are helping keep drug users alive. Harry said he sees both sides of that issue.
“In a sense, it works but also in a sense it prolongs rock bottom,” he said.
Instead, Harry has another idea. He wants the federal leaders to come down to the Downtown Eastside to see the crisis first-hand.
“I'd say come take a walk with me. Hey you leaders out there, come take with me and come see what's happening here. Our people are hurting,” he said.