Advocates gathered on a busy downtown corner in Toronto on Tuesday to demand that the federal government decriminalize the use of illicit drugs immediately.
Such a move would help improve the lives of Canadians who face discrimination in health care, housing and employment due to criminal records from drug convictions, said Zoe Dodd, a harm-reduction worker with the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society and the Toronto Harm Reduction Alliance.
The rally, held outside a federal department of justice building near King Street West and University Avenue, was part of a national day of action on the overdose crisis. The day of action was organized by the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs.
Dodd, who works at the overdose prevention site in Moss Park, said the situation is disturbing and disheartening and the government could take positive steps now.
"It's carnage and it's just been really painful and hard and difficult and it doesn't seem to feel like there's an end in sight if we don't do something drastic," Dodd said before the rally.
"We're here asking the federal government that it's about time that they think about decriminalization and moving forward. We're not here to ask for treatment beds, more prisons, anything like that. We're asking for decriminalization of drugs. We're ready for that."
'We need drastic action'
According to Dodd, activists know the government is not interested in decriminalization but it's important that advocates still demand change. She said it's an uphill battle, given that the government did not declare a national public health emergency last year, even though more than 4,000 Canadians died from overdose deaths.
"How many more dead people does there need to be in this country before the government takes swift action and does something that's not repressive, that's not oppressive, but actually progressive," she said. "We're tired. We're really, really tired. We need drastic action."
Kim Pare of Grimsby, Ont., said his daughter, 24, died of a drug addiction in March 2014 in Hamilton. She began taking drugs to deal with severe anxiety, he said.
Pare said she eventually started taking OxyContin that she bought on the street. Within 13 months of taking OxyContin, she died.
"My daughter was trying to get help but was also always fighting the police," he said. "They are always trying to fine them and put them in jail."
Pare said a generation of people is being lost because of overdose deaths. He said it's "like an airplane going down every day."
"We need harm reduction. We need this stuff," he said. "These kids are just good kids doing bad things. They're not bad people. I saw a sign here that says, 'Take Police Out of Health Care,' and that's what they got to do."
A banner that read, 'No More Drug War,' was also draped over a Don Valley Parkway bridge on Tuesday.
According to the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs, overdose prevention sites, supervised injection services and distribution of naloxone kits are not enough to reduce the number of overdose deaths in Canada.