Ottawa’s co-ordinated and consistent response to public health is needed across Canada

Dear Mayor Brownlee,

Please accept my sincere condolences over the deaths from the toxicity of prescription opioid-filled syringes in the terrible epidemic ravaging urban Canada. You have access to state-of-the-art monitoring in every single municipality and are therefore well-positioned to tackle this epidemic. The message is clear – our nation’s cities and towns need to lead and Ottawa is playing a key part in this – neither Ottawa nor our cities should be providing inappropriate funding to centres of excellence such as addiction therapy centres for individuals struggling with opioid use and supporting them to get back into the workforce.

I’m confident the importance of addressing overdoses in cities is not being universally understood by elected officials and authorities across Canada, including in Ottawa.

In Ottawa, in addition to Ottawa’s addiction centre and many other non-profit treatment resources, in September we had the worst-ever reported drug overdose death toll in Ottawa: 17 people at the end of September and 18 people this past Wednesday.

And in that time frame, Ottawa has already experienced fentanyl poisoning and related emergency responses that have put us on course to surpass last year’s record numbers. It’s just not clear that many elected officials are fully aware of this ongoing crisis in the lives of their constituents.

There’s no silver bullet in this emergency. Government and donor assistance, funding and advice on how to better respond to these crises will have a lasting and profound impact, but cities need to take the lead, have the understanding and action to stop overdoses, especially those related to mental illness and addictions.

As I read, now more than ever, that addiction is the brain’s little blip in its manic cycle, it’s clear that the ripple of this epidemic is not going to be contained in one or two towns or cities; it will impact the whole country. Addictive drug use can be a life-saver for many people and reduce serious risk of suicide, but it’s also a threat to their health, safety and wellbeing and will eventually come back to haunt us all.

My advice to you and all Canadian mayors would be to be as creative, strategic and responsible as you possibly can, and also hear your constituents. That’s the most effective way to best help and support people who may be struggling with substance use disorder in your communities.

You can support effective and innovative treatment programs, hold public forums to engage your constituents and provide all citizens and politicians, including yours, with information about addressing this crisis. The crisis will not end until every Canadian knows what’s happening in their own backyards.

This crisis could not come at a worse time as Ottawa continues to seek a solution for its opioid and heroin users who are increasingly choosing cheaper, often cheaper-to-make heroin as a result of higher-quality, local, non-pharmaceutical heroin programs. One such program in Ottawa is being led by our Commissioner of Health Services.

The Affordable Care Act and other opioid-addiction support programs such as the harm reduction framework Canada Evidence-based Opioid Treatment Toolkit, designed to support regional and local governments, are working to address this crisis. It’s necessary to combine our city’s and individual citizens’ efforts, expertise and resources to stop this crisis from spiralling out of control.

Municipalities can’t solve this crisis on their own, and they shouldn’t be penalized for taking on a multilayered problem like this one. Ottawa’s co-ordinated and consistent response to public health is needed across Canada. The 2018 emergency funding decision by Finance Minister Bill Morneau to cut funds to Kingston’s emergency medical service (EMS) was therefore disappointing. Ottawa also participates in the Kingston EMS Operations Planning Group that coordinates the city’s response to these types of emergencies.

Mayor Brownlee,

There’s still time to act, but we have to think and act together on this issue. Just like in any other emergency, Ottawa needs to be stepping up and providing the support, which is needed. Ottawa will become known for the most effective response to the overdose crisis, and that, too, is a cost-effective example for the rest of the country.

When it comes to the overdose crisis, Ottawa has the tools – we can’t be leaving anyone behind.

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