VANCOUVER — Canada's Governor General visited an overdose prevention site in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside on Saturday after meeting with first responders on the front lines of substance-use issues fuelled by the opioid fentanyl.
Julie Payette met at a fire hall with firefighters and police officers as well as officials including Mayor Kennedy Stewart, British Columbia's Lt.-Gov. Janet Austin and Dr. Patricia Daly, the chief medical health officer for the Vancouver Coastal Health authority.
Payette said she's learned that the overdose crisis that has caused thousands of deaths across the country is complicated and will require a co-ordinated response including health and mental-health services in order to find solutions and "diminish hardship."
She said it wasn't her first visit to the drug-riddled neighbourhood and that she's had a longtime interest in addiction issues.
"Before I was Governor General of Canada I served on the board of Drug Free Kids Canada," Payette said of the non-profit organization that aims to help parents in particular deal with youth addiction and prevention.
"My reason to be here today is just to highlight and thank the folks that do this every day," she said of firefighters and police officers who respond to multiple 911 calls daily involving people who have overdosed.
After her visit to the fire hall, Payette walked a few blocks with first responders and officials to the Molson Overdose Prevention Site, where people inject their own drugs and other drug users trained to supervise them ensure they get help if they overdose.
The site opened in December 2016 under an order from the provincial health minister, seven months after the B.C. government declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency because of a record number of overdose deaths, mostly due to fentanyl.
Coco Culbertson, senior manager of programs at PHS Community Services Society, which runs Molson, said Payette's visit may help to reduce the stigma of drug use.
"She was incredibly empathetic and understanding of how these places offer humanity and dignity to people that often don't have a lot of agency in society," Culbertson said.
Molson is around the corner from Insite, North America's first facility to offer drug users a place to walk in off the street to inject their own drugs under the watchful eye of a nurse.
Insite opened in 2003 to curb overdose deaths and spiralling HIV rates when the federal Liberals were in power and under an exemption to Canada's drug laws but the facility became the focus of heated court battles with the election of the Conservative government before a unanimous 9-0 decision by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2011 kept the site open.
The success of Insite has spawned similar sites across the country including two others in British Columbia, which is also home to 30 overdose prevention sites in B.C., including the one Payette visited.
Jonathan Gormick, spokesman for Vancouver Fire Rescue Services, said the governor general's meeting with first responders is meaningful because she's not a politician.
"I think when she gathers evidence and she advocates for a position it's taken with more validity because it's not based on getting votes, it's not based on towing a party line or saying something just to oppose an opposition party," Gormick said. "Hopefully it will influence some change and be supported across party lines."
Health Canada says about 14,000 people died in the country of opioid-related overdoses between January 2016 and June 2019 and thousands more were hospitalized.
Later on Saturday, Payette was to meet with five teenage skiers who were hailed as heroes last year for helping to save an eight-year-old boy who was dangling from a chair lift on Grouse Mountain. The teens grabbed a piece of out-of-bounds netting to help cushion the boy's fall after convincing him to jump.
"I'm the mom of a teenager so I know how important it is to say, 'Hey, good job,'" Payette said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 22, 2020.
Camille Bains, The Canadian Press