OTTAWA - Canada needs international help in stanching the flow of deadly fentanyl from China, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said Thursday after meeting with B.C. Premier Christy Clark about the country's escalating opioid epidemic.
Goodale, Health Minister Jane Philpott and Clark's B.C. delegation met in Ottawa ahead of a two-day summit that will bring together medical professionals and experts from across the country.
"The world has to take this seriously, just as we are taking it seriously," Goodale said outside the Commons.
Last spring, B.C. became the first province in Canada to declare a public health emergency following a dramatic spike in overdose deaths related to the use of drugs such as fentanyl.
It's vital that federal government takes additional action to crack down on the import of fentanyl from China, Clark said.
"British Columbia has been the front line of it," she said.
"We are the closest to China so we have really been dealing with it unfolding locally but ... as it moves across the country, we can't deal with it on a province-to-province basis. It has to be a national strategy."
Addressing a foreign stream of fentanyl will require personnel and appropriate technology at the border, Goodale said, adding it will also involve global partnership.
"This not a Canada-only issue," he said. "This is one that could have dire consequences in many parts of the world ... So it takes an international effort as well as a domestic one."
Clark was joined Thursday by advocates including Leslie McBain, a mother who lost her 25-year-old son Jordan to opioid abuse, and Mikaela Mamer, a recovery advocate and former addict herself who lost her boyfriend and best friend to overdoses.
Every level of government would have responded faster to any other toxic substance coming in from a foreign country, Clark added, conceding that the fact fentanyl is a legal drug is a big part of the problem.
"We have been too slow," she said. "We've put a lot of effort in and we are catching up, in B.C., but we don't want ... other mothers and sisters and aunts to find themselves in the same situation."
"I work in a treatment centre now where I see people coming in from all walks of life," Mamer said. "From lawyers, to pilots, to doctors .... it can affect anybody."
Friday's summit meeting is being co-hosted by Philpott and Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins — both doctors themselves.
In an interview with The Canadian Press, Hoskins said much of the summit will explore ways to help people who are already suffering from addiction, while examining ways to prevent overdoses.
There is also the thorny issue of examining the ways doctors prescribe powerful medications like painkillers.
In some cases, opioids are the best solution, Hoskins said, noting they are commonly prescribed to ease the discomfort of cancer and palliative care patients. But he said it's vital they be doled out at the right levels.
Ontario has the highest per capita prescribing of opioids in the country — one of the highest in the world, Hoskins said.
"We need to ask ourselves why."
The opioid crisis has evolved, said Dr. David Juurlink — the head of pharmacology and toxicology at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto who will deliver the keynote address Friday.
There have been increasing numbers of opioid related deaths for the past 20 years, he said, but the current market is far greater than ever before as people turn to more readily available illegal drugs that contain ingredients like fentanyl.
"The fentanyl is an epidemic within an epidemic."
—Follow @kkirkup on Twitter