Whitehorse Daily Star

Image title

Photo by Whitehorse Star

MP Brendan Hanley

MP prompted parliamentary committee’s opioid crisis study

A parliamentary health committee has begun examining Canada’s opioid and toxic drug crisis after prompting from Yukon MP Brendan Hanley.

By Mark Page on December 21, 2023

A parliamentary health committee has begun examining Canada’s opioid and toxic drug crisis after prompting from Yukon MP Brendan Hanley.

“We needed to put some focus onto the toxic drug crisis,” Hanley told the Star last Friday from Ottawa.

“To use the study as a way to bring back public attention to the magnitude of the crisis.”

There are ongoing federal, territorial and provincial efforts to respond to this crisis. Those include a $359-million commitment by the federal government over the next five years.

This study by the Standing Committee on Public Health will look at how these responses are doing.

“What progress have we made?” Hanley said. “And what more do we need to do?”

Hanley moved the motion to undertake this study on Jan. 31 of this year. It requires the committee to hold a minimum of eight meetings, with one of those focused solely on Indigenous, rural, northern and remote communities.

The study began with a meeting on Oct. 4, and the first witness called was Jennifer Saxe, an associate assistant deputy minister from the Department of Health.

She explained to the committee the extent of the crisis.

She said the latest data show there have been 38,514 opioid overdose deaths since January 2016.

About 90 per cent of those are in B.C., Alberta and Ontario, but she specifically mentioned the Yukon and Saskatchewan as smaller population areas with elevated rates of overdoses.

“This public health crisis is having a tragic impact on people who use substances, their families, and communities across the country,” she said.

Hanley saw the crisis grow firsthand when he worked as the Yukon’s chief medical officer up until 2021.

“I feel kind of a personal stake in this because I was involved in that role,” he said.

He said there was a noticeable change in 2016, when fentanyl became more prevalent.

“It really heralded the escalating — the kind of a runaway crisis that we have seen ever since 2016,” Hanley said.

Saxe told the committee that 81 per cent of overdose deaths these days involve fentanyl.

She also said Indigenous people are disproportionately affected across Canada.

In a smaller population such as the Yukon, this crisis has an outsized impact on the community, Hanley said.

“It only takes a few deaths before literally everyone is affected in the Yukon, or nearly everyone,” Hanley said.

“Because they know someone directly, they know someone who knows someone.”

Both in his interview with the Star and in remarks before the committee, Hanley highlighted the work being done, while also pointing out that it is not enough.

In the Yukon, a safe injection and inhalation site has opened in downtown Whitehorse, something he said has definitely saved lives.

“Yes, there have been likely averted deaths just because people come to choose to use in a supervised setting,” he said.

The supervised consumption site the — Blood Ties Four Directions Centre — is one of the first sites in the country to have an inhalation room, Hanley said.

This is particularly important in the Yukon because there is a preference for inhalation over injection, he said.

“Yet the deaths go on,” he told the committee. “Lives and families are torn apart with overdose fatalities and injuries.”

The meetings will continue into the new year, potentially until March, Hanley said.

This study may not directly change policy, but Hanley hopes it can become a decent guidepost for where we are at.

“Does the report in itself change what the government is doing? No, not necessarily,” he said.

“But it can hopefully give some thoughtful analysis to where we are going, to what’s been done so far, and where we can go.”

Be the first to comment

Add your comments or reply via Twitter @whitehorsestar

In order to encourage thoughtful and responsible discussion, website comments will not be visible until a moderator approves them. Please add comments judiciously and refrain from maligning any individual or institution. Read about our user comment and privacy policies.

Your name and email address are required before your comment is posted. Otherwise, your comment will not be posted.