OTTAWA — Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre is promising a new approach to managing Canada’s toxic drug crisis, but what he’s saying about that crisis is an irresponsible distortion of the facts, his critics charge.
His promises — which include the suggestion he’d scale back safe-supply programs in favour of putting more resources into addiction treatment — mark a move for Poilievre away from the topics he leaned on to win leadership of his party this year and towards building a narrative to win government in the next election.
Why he’s focusing on drug policy now, insiders say, follows his campaign-style tour through British Columbia this month where he personally saw some of the impact of a drug crisis expected to kill more than 2,000 people this year.
Governments across the country have been seeking answers to an epidemic of toxic drug use that has claimed 21 lives a day between January and March of this year alone, federal statistics suggest.
In a video Poilievre made during a recent trip to British Columbia, the epicentre of the crisis in Canada, he blamed the situation on what he called a “failed experiment” launched by “woke Liberal and NDP governments” to provide safer supplies of illicit drugs.
“There is no safe supply of these drugs. They are deadly,” he said.
“They are lethal and they are relentlessly addictive. Giving people more of these drugs will not free them from their addiction and will only lead to their ultimate death.”
Instead, Poilievre argued, the money spent on safe supply should be redirected to addiction treatment.
To back up his claim, he cites two data points: an assertion that overdose deaths are up in B.C. by 300 per cent since 2015, which he links to safe supply regimes; and that overdose deaths have been cut in half in Alberta, which he attributes to that province’s focus on treatment programs.
The statistics from the provinces provide a more nuanced look.
Alberta has increased the number of fully funded treatment beds by 476 since 2019, according to analysis by the Edmonton Journal, while in B.C., 340 beds have been added over the last five years.
Data from Alberta shows that while overdose deaths have been declining since a monthly high of 174 last November, they are still up from pre-pandemic levels. At the same time, demand for opioid substitutes or safe places to use drugs — which keep users away from potentially toxic street drugs — is also up, provincial statistics show.
Meanwhile, in B.C., there were 529 deaths attributed to toxic drug overdoses in 2015, and 1,644 in the first eight months of 2022, according to provincial statistics. In September alone, there were 19,784 visits to overdose prevention and supervised consumption services.
The safe-supply approach — sometimes referred to as harm reduction — is what keeps people from dying, Poilievre’s critics charged this week, and doing away with it risks exacerbating the crisis.
Mental Health and Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennett, who earlier this week called Poilievre’s comments “populist nonsense,” reiterated that sentiment Wednesday in announcing $15 million in funding for substance abuse prevention programming.
Forty-two thousand overdoses have been reversed since 2017, she said, and Poilievre’s position is “infuriating,” as the benefits of harm reduction and medication-assisted therapy are well understood.
“I don’t know what part of the evidence the opponents are ignoring,” she said.
But supporters of Poilievre’s position argue what he’s paying attention to are perceptions that Canada’s drug problems are getting worse, not better.
Political pressure to present ideas on how to tackle Canada’s toxic drug issue has been building on the Conservatives, who until very recently had framed the issue as a criminal one that needed to be dealt with through the justice system.
In 2021, however, then-leader Erin O’Toole began reframing drug use as a health issue, promising to spend more money on rehabilitation and treatment, and focusing law enforcement on the trafficking and importation of drugs — an approach echoed by Poilievre.
Dan Robertson, who helped run O’Toole’s campaign, said the way Poilievre is going at the issue is “dead on the money.”
While the Conservatives are derided for raising crime as an issue even when statistics suggest it is on the decline, that criticism doesn’t stick if voters “feel” it is a problem,” Robertson said.
The same is true of the drug crisis.
“All anyone has to do is walk through the downtown of a city in this country and he or she will see all around them that drug addiction — and its attendant problems — has gotten much, much worse,” Robertson said.
Poilievre’s focus on drug policy now, insiders say, is linked to his campaign-style tour through British Columbia this month.
It wasn’t his first trip — he travelled extensively in B.C. during his successful leadership campaign earlier this year, and didn’t debut any policy on the issue at that time.
But as his party begins to set the stage for the next election campaign, ignoring the issue isn’t an option: the Conservatives lost four seats in British Columbia in the 2021 campaign, and need to win them back. Picking up a few more wouldn’t hurt, either.
In that province, the drug epidemic is butting up against a housing crisis and a rise in violent crime, a mix of issues that played out in that province’s municipal elections last month.
The results — in Vancouver, in particular — are serving as a signal for Team Poilievre. Ken Sim, a right-of-centre mayoral candidate who focused on public safety issues, ousted former NDP MP turned mayor Kennedy Stewart, who among other things was a champion of drug decriminalization.
Federal Conservative insiders acknowledge it may feel early to be testing out campaign narratives for the next federal election — the supply-and-confidence agreement has the NDP propping up the minority Liberals until 2025 in exchange for action on NDP priorities.
But on the other hand, it might not, and in the meantime Poilievre is being encouraged to test-drive concepts and approaches to see how they land.
Taking on the question of drug policy also plays into Poilievre’s overarching brand, Robertson pointed out.
“It fits into his ‘gatekeeper’ narrative, that so-called experts don’t really know what they’re doing and are making things worse.”
Stephanie Levitz is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @StephanieLevitz