OTTAWA — It was an opening to talk about a painful memory on the campaign trail.
New Democrat Leader Jagmeet Singh hosted a town hall in Sudbury, Ont. Tuesday when the microphone was handed to a man in the audience who wanted to hear more about the party’s plan to address the deadly opioid epidemic and drug addiction.
“Our young people are dying and we’re a wealthy country,” the man said in French. “There’s no reason that should happen in Canada.”
Singh took a small bow toward the man and thanked him for the “beautiful” question. He said the current approach to addressing drug addiction in the criminal justice system isn’t working. “They don’t need to be put in jail, they need rehab. And so that’s what our response is going to be.”
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The NDP leader shared an anecdote about his dad, a doctor whose alcoholism wreaked damage on the personal and professional relationships around him. “I remember my dad, he was living with an addiction, and it was pretty horrible,” he said.
“He lost a lot of weight at the end of the addiction. He couldn’t eat anymore. He went from 180 pounds, strong guy, to 100 pounds,” Singh continued. “I remember lifting him in my arms and he felt like a little kid. And when your dad feels like a kid like that, it’s just heartbreaking.”
It’s a personal story that the federal leader has previously shared in his memoir “Love & Courage” published earlier this year. Singh goes into more detail in the book, disclosing that he took up martial arts to protect his mother and siblings from his bellicose father.
Singh wrote about the 2007 incident as a “memory I’d rather forget.” Estranged from his family and living on his own in an apartment in Windsor, Ont., Singh’s father was “skin and bones” when his son and wife visited him one day. His body had been weakened by disease and neglect.
“This was rock bottom. It had to be. I prayed it was,” Singh wrote in the book.
Standing in the Steelworkers’ Union Hall Tuesday, the NDP leader told the crowd that his family didn’t have access to private insurance but lucked out by claiming a space at a publicly funded rehab centre. The treatment saved his dad’s life, Singh said.
“That’s why I believe passionately that every single person in our country should have access to the care they need.”
The NDP leader did not divulge details of the party’s plan to address drug addiction and the opioid crisis. But a platform released earlier this year outlines the shape of what the policy will be, beginning with declaring opioid-related overdoses as a public health emergency.
It also includes a promise that an NDP government would work with the provinces and territories to support overdose prevention sites, “end the criminalization and stigma of drug addiction,” and to expand addiction treatment services.
The platform also suggested tougher action with drug manufacturers linked to the addiction epidemic, pledging to launch an investigation into the role drug companies play and to seek “meaningful financial compensation from them for the public costs of this crisis.”
Singh has yet to reveal additional details on what compensation will look like.
Crisis impacting average Canada’s life expectancy
More than 11,500 people have died from opioid-related deaths between January 2016 and December 2018, according to Health Canada. The number of deaths has become so high that Statistics Canada noticed. Average life expectancy has stopped growing for the first time in 40 years, in part because of the crisis.
It’s been a week since the launch of the federal election campaign and leaders of the three major parties have yet to announce official policy pledges to address the opioid epidemic.
Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor told HuffPost Canada in May that the opioid crisis continues to be a priority file. Grassroots Liberal supporters overwhelmingly supported a resolution at the party’s 2018 convention to decriminalize drugs as a way to end the stigma surrounding addiction.
Conservatives have been vocal against the idea of decriminalizing drugs as an approach to address the opioid crisis. Leader Andrew Scheer has called the opioid epidemic a health and public safety issue that can be tackled by addressing supply.
“Canada must stop this flow of fentanyl into Canada,” Scheer told an audience of municipal leaders in Quebec City in May. He set his sights on Chinese labs that produce synthetic opioids. “The government must take real actions to hold China accountable,” he said.
The Green Party election platform, released Monday, contains similar pledges to what the NDP have promised so far: declaring a national health emergency over the opioid crisis and addressing the epidemic as a health issue first. It also include a promise to “increase funding to community-based organizations” to test drugs and to increase access to naloxone kits.
There was no dollar figure attached to the pledge.