Edmonton councillor wants Ottawa to declare opioid crisis a national emergency

·2 min read
Coun. Scott McKeen plans to bring forward a motion on Friday asking the federal government to declare the opioid crisis a national health emergency. (Nathan Gross/CBC - image credit)
Coun. Scott McKeen plans to bring forward a motion on Friday asking the federal government to declare the opioid crisis a national health emergency. (Nathan Gross/CBC - image credit)

Edmonton city councillor Scott McKeen will introduce a motion to the executive committee on Friday asking the federal government for help in tackling the opioid crisis.

The motion will ask Mayor Don Iveson to write a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to declare the opioid overdose crisis a national health emergency, decriminalize small amounts of drugs and provide medically safe alternatives to help get people with addictions into treatment.

McKeen told CBC's Edmonton AM said his decision follows other cities in Canada.

"Other cities have been calling for a national emergency to treat this as a national crisis and national emergency. I think it's important that Edmonton add its voice," he said.

Statistics released by the province on Tuesday show 1,128 people in Alberta died from an opioid overdose in 2020, the highest total recorded in a single year.

McKeen hopes declaring a national health emergency would send resources to the provinces as well as the municipalities to come up with more innovative responses to the crisis.

McKeen said he was encouraged by the province's unveiling Monday of the new Digital Overdose Response System app aimed at preventing fatal overdoses.

"I think what it shows to me is that the Province of Alberta, the Kenney government, is taking this overdose crisis seriously and is trying innovative ways to deal with it," he said.

The councillor said he has changed his mind about decriminalizing drugs.

"I was not a fan, to be honest," he said.

But after learning how decriminalizing drugs could reduce stigma and keep illicit substances off the streets, he decided it was the right approach.

"I know it gives some people comfort knowing that people who use drugs are being punished for doing so," he said. "I would ask them to pause, take a deep breath and think about addiction as an illness that these people are self medicating.

"I just want us to look at this as an illness that requires treatment."

Thirteen years sober himself and having attended countless meetings, McKeen said he has seen first hand how people suffer with drug and alcohol addictions.

"These people are so ashamed of their addiction, so ashamed that we have to find ways to, number one, to reduce the stigma and, number two, find avenues for them to get help without shame," he said.

McKeen said he expects members of the medical, activist and business community to speak to the motion Friday.