Health professionals and justice workers represented by NUPGE are eyewitnesses to the unfolding crisis.
Ottawa (29 March 2021) — Over 40 participants from 9 components of the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) participated in a meeting to discuss the opioid-related poison drug crisis, and solutions to fix it.
The meeting included NUPGE members working in various positions in healthcare, social services, and justice learned about and discussed NUPGE’s research on the ever-growing epidemic.
A highlight of the meeting was a keynote address by former Member of Parliament, former House Leader and Deputy Leader NDP, Libby Davies. Davies identified ways the federal government can solve this crisis, and she talked about the need for a safe supply.
There’s an epidemic in Canada, and in some provinces, it’s killing more people than COVID-19. Some are calling it an opioid crisis, but it’s really a poison drug crisis. And its victims are not who you might think.
The poison drug crisis is in all the provinces where NUPGE members work, like British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Saskatchewan, and in Atlantic provinces like Prince Edward Island.
In each of these provinces, reports from provincial coroners’ services and from ongoing provincial drug surveillance programs reveal alarming evidence of another public health crisis. It’s an opioid-related crisis that began many years before the COVID-19 pandemic, and is now much worse because of it.
In the 3 provinces where the epidemic is the worst (British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario), what this data reveals is that as many as 80% of apparent opioid toxicity deaths in Canada were men, with the highest percentage between the ages of 20 and 49. The epidemic is happening across all ethnocultural identities and nationalities, and without any distinction to class, income level, or profession.
It's happening in residential neighbourhoods and private residences, in rural areas, and in cities large and small. However, there is some evidence that opioid-related deaths occurred more often in neighbourhoods with the highest material deprivation.
Among the deaths, 94% were accidental. In other words, whatever the reasons for use, it was not the intention of the user to die by drug-induced suicide.
"The National Union is committed to the health and safety of public services workers on the front lines of this poison drug epidemic, " said Larry Brown, NUPGE President. "With that in mind, we are committed to understanding this crisis, and urging governments to do something about it."
NUPGE members are on the front lines
NUPGE members are on the front lines of this poison drug crisis: a wide range of health professionals and justice workers represented by NUPGE are eye-witnesses to the unfolding crisis.
“NUPGE workers did their jobs with dedication, and at risk of great personal harm.” said Brown. “They had no option to work at home, so they risked exposure to COVID-19 every time they went to work.”
In every NUPGE component province, workers in a number of sectors have been warning us since at least 2016 about the poison drug crisis. These dedicated professionals include paramedics/emergency medical responders, corrections workers, mental health and addictions workers, hospital workers, and community health care professionals.
In BC, members of the Health Sciences Association of BC (HSABC/NUPGE) working as nurses were among the first to notice that COVID-19 was exacerbating the problem of drug toxicity deaths.
Members of the BC Government and Service Employees Union (BCGEU/NUPGE) working in addictions recovery reported an increase in citizens seeking support for substance misuse regarding opioids. Members working in shelter and supportive services have seen a substantial increase of overdoes due to opioid use.
In Ontario, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU/NUPGE) mental health and addictions members working in public hospitals, like CAMH, and in community mental and addiction health agencies were the first to sound the alarm on surging overdose cases and the hazards of Fentanyl for workers.
In Alberta, the Alberta Health Science Association (HSAA/NUPGE) members working as mental health and addictions counsellors were among the first to warn us that reduced community services, reduced access to detox and other treatments, and a lack of mental health care are major contributors to opioid-related deaths.
The New Brunswick Union (NBU/NUPGE) members in hospitals and social services, including social workers, reported seeing the increase throughout the province.
What's differet from 2010? Poison illicit drugs
This is not the same opioid crisis as 10 years ago. In 2010, in provinces like Newfoundland & Labrador, and Saskatchewan, the leading cause of death was prescription opioids like Hydromorphone, Methadone, Morphine, and Oxycodone, and to a less extent Codeine. In 2020, the leading ingredient is non-prescription fentanyl that is combined with stimulants like Methamphetamine.
The problem in 2010 was prescriptions, and the primary culprits were pharmaceutical companies and governments who served them by turning a blind eye.
Today prescription-dependency is still a problem needing urgent public attention. But the bigger problem is a cocktail of poison illicit drugs: non-pharmaceutical, non-prescription, bootleg opioids of highly dubious content, mixed with stimulants.
Solution: A health approach
Because the problem today is a cocktail of non-pharmaceuticals and stimulants, the solutions are more complicated than before: we still need legislation to nationalize or strictly regulate the production of pharmaceutical drugs. And we still need accountability from pharmaceutical companies for flooding the country with cheap accessible pain killers. But we need to do other things.
Today, there is growing recognition that what is needed to save lives is a health approach rather than a crime and punishment one. This means better social services like affordable housing. Services and support for mental injury and mental health. Agencies to reach people at elevated risk, and better addictions treatment.
A health approach also means a legal pharmaceutical supply administered under safe medical conditions.
The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 390,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. — NUPGE