John Tory, construction industry call on Ford government to take action on overdose crisis

QP Briefing - May 31, 2021

Discussing the overdose crisis last week, Toronto Mayor John Tory was about as blunt as he gets. 

“We are not yet seeing the supports and programs, provincially, especially from the provincial health-care system, consistent with a crisis, and a loss of life on the scale described in this report.”

In an unprompted, pre-written section of the city’s public health update on Wednesday, Tory called out the provincial government for its lack of action on Ontario’s overdose crisis, much of which is concentrated in his city.

The report he noted was Toronto Public Health data that showed the city hit a record-high 512 overdose-related deaths in 2020.

Ontario has overtaken British Columbia as the province with the most overdose deaths per year. The number of people dying has been increasing for many years, and skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A report from the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network (ODPRN) found a 60 per cent increase in the number of opioid-related deaths in 2020 — 2,426 — from the year before, and a 79 per cent increase in monthly deaths in 2020 alone.

“It doesn’t get anywhere near enough attention,” Tory said, adding that he personally knows two families that have lost someone to an overdose.

He said it’s “just not acceptable” to be losing this many people to a public health crisis.

“Make no mistake, it is a health and a health-care issue,” he continued. “There is no moral issue here. This is not a moral issue. It is about people who have a health problem with dependency and who need the same support that we would give to anyone else with a health problem.”

Tory questioned what the public debate would look like if people with heart conditions were told there were no treatment programs available, as those with addictions often are.

While he called out the province for its lack of action, he praised the federal government for helping fund the city’s safer supply clinics and Toronto Public Health for its harm reduction work

“Much of this should properly be done by our health-care system, and I look forward to the province showing increased initiative in this regard,” he said.

Tory’s strong words are a reminder that calls for stronger action are not just coming from front-line harm reduction advocates anymore. As deaths continue to spiral, the crisis is increasingly seen as an issue not confined to certain populations living on the streets. Mainstream politicians, police chiefs and industry stakeholders are begging for creative solutions to a crisis that shows no signs of slowing down.

The ODPRN report found that 30 per cent of deaths among employed people came from the construction industry — a physically taxing job where workers are often prescribed opioid painkillers.

“When people lose their prescription that was at a safe and known dose, but they don’t lose their tolerance, and they don’t lose their dependence, they’ll often turn to the street market,” said Dr. Andrea Sereda, a physician with the London InterCommunity Health Centre, in a video produced by the Ontario Construction Consortium (OCC).

The video is part of a public awareness campaign produced by the OCC called The Other Pandemic.

“This situation is alarming,” OCC Phil Gillies said in a release. “Construction workers are dying from drug overdoses, a crisis largely driven by the widespread street distribution of the highly-addictive opioid fentanyl.”

“The fentanyl on the street is what is killing people. Perhaps governments should be looking at changing policies with regard to a safe drug supply,” Gillies said in the video, over images of Queen’s Park and Parliament Hill.

The Ministry of Health said it was looking into a safer supply program in February, but there has been no update yet.

Health Minister Christine Elliott’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

B.C.’s safer supply program allows people who use drugs to access heroin prescribed through clinics, as opposed to street drugs, which often contain toxic additives like fentanyl in unknown quantities.

The OCC campaign urges construction workers to protect themselves from overdoses by never using alone, calls on unions and contractors to increase training and education, and asks governments to increase addiction treatment and counselling services.

The group said its campaign will include an advertorial in the National Post and Toronto Sun, as well as several videos and a radio commercial.

The NDP is also calling for action.

The deaths noted in the ODPRN report “could have been prevented if harm reduction services and addiction treatment beds were available and easily accessible in our province. Sadly, these critical services are few and far between due to this government’s continued inaction,” mental health and addictions critic Monique Taylor said after the report came out this month.

“Ford must stop ignoring this public health crisis and act immediately to prevent deaths. At the very minimum, he must reconvene the Opioid Emergency Task Force. Ignoring this crisis won’t make it go away, and will only lead to more pain and suffering for Ontario families.”