Liberal MP Fry says feds would speed up action on fentanyl if Ontario impacted

B.C. Liberal MP Dr. Hedy Fry. Photo courtesy The Canadian Press.

A Liberal MP is speaking out about what she considers a frustratingly slow response by her own federal government to the crisis of fentanyl, a potent opioid linked to more than 500 overdose deaths last year in B.C. and Alberta alone.

"I feel it's something we need to be doing something about faster than we are doing it," Hedy Fry, the longtime Liberal MP for Vancouver Centre, said in an interview.

The number of Canadian deaths from fentanyl — often used to cut other drugs, such as heroin, cocaine or oxycodone — is highest in B.C. and Alberta, prompting Fry to suggest that a regional bias, albeit unintentional, might be at play.

"I think that it is that the whole country isn't suffering from the same problem — it's B.C. and Alberta," Fry said. "It's now starting in Ontario, and I would suggest to you that once it gets bad in Ontario, we will notice action being taken."

It's not the first time the government has been accused of being out of touch with what's going on elsewhere in the country, although the criticism doesn't usually come from inside the federal Liberal caucus.

Terry Lake, the B.C. health minister, made a similar point at an opioid summit in Ottawa last November, when politicians met with doctors, public health experts and people with lived experience to explore solutions to the epidemic.

"It took a while for them to understand the magnitude of the situation, because the numbers here in B.C. are so much greater on a per capita basis than they are in Ontario," Lake said in an interview Friday.

It can be tough to get an entirely accurate picture of the problem, because different provinces use different ways to track deaths from overdoses.

Still, it is clear that B.C. and Alberta have been the hardest hit, although preliminary data shows numbers are rising in Ontario too.

The Coroners Service of British Columbia reported 374 illicit drug overdose deaths linked to fentanyl between January and Oct. 31 last year. Alberta reported 193 fentanyl-related deaths between January and September of last year.

Ontario, which has a population about three times the size of either of those provinces, reported 166 deaths linked to fentanyl in 2015, according to preliminary data for 2015 from the chief coroner's office.

Statistics from 2016 are not yet available.

Andrew MacKendrick, a spokesman for Health Minister Jane Philpott, said the federal government has been working hard to tackle the issue.

"We have been working throughout the year to pull as many levers as possible to address this public health crisis, but certainly recognize that more needs to be done," MacKendrick said.

"She certainly recognizes the impact this has on families and the communities regardless of where it happens in the country, so this is something the minister is deeply concerned about — disturbed about — and is committed and determined to work with the partners across the country to address it properly."

Both Fry and Lake said they welcome the proposed legislative changes found in Bill C-37, which includes measures to simplify the criteria for setting up a safe-injection site and restrict the importation of pill presses and encapsulators.

"That has all been helpful, but I still maintain that this is a national crisis," said Lake.

"This isn't a British Columbia crisis. This is a national crisis and we have not seen any federal response from a financial perspective to help provinces with this real public health crisis," he said.

Fry said she would like to see public health officials in every province co-ordinating efforts to help keep it under control.

"I think it's time for the whole country to pull together."

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