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Some councillors want opioid crisis declared 'a public health emergency'

'Nine thousand lives have been lost and families directly affected by opioids, and still a national emergency hasn’t been declared,' says Coun. Natalie Harris, who calls the situation 'unacceptable'
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Some city councillors want to take talk of the local opioid crisis to another level. 

Keenan Aylwin's direct motion, seconded by Coun. Natalie Harris, was withdrawn from city council's agenda earlier this week.

The motion as printed called for the federal government to declare a "public health emergency" in Canada due to the opioid overdose situation, which is being felt in many communities and few more so than Barrie. 

Aylwin, whose ward includes the heavily drug-affected downtown, told BarrieToday he expects the discussion to be brought up at general committee later this month.

The motion called for more federal and provincial funding to "support, enhance and expand evidence-based treatment and rehabilitation services, addiction prevention and education, and harm-reduction measures." It also pushed for more money to address the root causes of addiction, as well as housing, poverty, unemployment, mental illness and trauma.

Although the direct motion only took "a couple of days" to craft, Harris said it was pulled from the agenda to allow other councillors time to prepare for a debate on the issue. 

"It was originally put forward as a direct motion, which would mean that no debate could occur. Questions are permitted only," she told BarrieToday. "So by moving the motion to the next general committee meeting, councillors can debate back and forth as need be."

Harris said she wants to "bring this crisis the national care it needs. It already has national attention; now we want national money for care," including more available beds in treatment centres and to implement consumption and treatment sites immediately.

The Gilbert Centre, the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) and the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit are working together on a provincial application to have a Consumption and Treatment Servies (CTS) facility open in Barrie. 

Meanwhile, Harris said she's not satisfied with the amount of time it has taken for all levels of government to sit down together. She said all levels of government need to come to the table in Barrie to "directly address the staggering facts, head-on." She believes part of the delay is the stigma attached to addiction and drug use. 

The Ward 6 councillor and retired paramedic noted things moved much quicker around a health scare such as SARS in the early 2000s. 

"Nine thousand lives have been lost and families directly affected by opioids, and still a national emergency hasn’t been declared," she said. "We think that that is completely unacceptable."

As a recovering addict herself, Harris said it's her "personal passion" to see more money invested in "life-saving treatment centres, and I would like to bring a satellite rehabilitation centre directly to Barrie," she said.

Barrie has some of the highest emergency-room visits in the province for overdoses compared to other large municipalities. An ER physician recently told BarrieToday that many people don't even see the inside of the hospital and are declared dead out in the community before even seeing a doctor. 

Harris said she understands there are different opinions on how to treat addiction and substance abuse, "but red tape and prolonged time to treatment is costing Canadians their lives every day," she added.

In the first six months of 2018, there were 31 confirmed and four probable opioid deaths in Simcoe Muskoka. That's up slightly from the same time period a year earlier. A high percentage of those were in Barrie alone. 

Across Canada, the number of opioid-related deaths is in the thousands. 

Coun. Jim Harris, whose day job is as the director of operations for Canadian Mental Health Association's (CMHA) Ontario Division, said he's looking forward to an upcoming presentation to city council from local health officials about the ongoing Simcoe Muskoka Opioid Strategy, or SMOS for short. 

"I believe this will be an important opportunity for council to ask questions and learn more about the issues," he told BarrieToday. "More importantly, we will hear what has been done to date, its impact and what’s left to be done."

The Ward 8 councillor also noted that members of the local group applying for the CTS site in Barrie are meeting individually with councillors to discuss the multi-layered topic. 

"Again, this will help ensure councillors are informed with the current evidence, understand what is being done at the provincial and federal level, and up to date on what health-care providers see as the most appropriate response for our community," he said. 

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Raymond Bowe

About the Author: Raymond Bowe

Raymond is an award-winning journalist who has been reporting from Simcoe County since 2000
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