It’s not easy fulfilling a commitment to fact check Pierre Poilievre. No sooner do you promise to scrutinize some of the claims he has made about the recently-tabled (and almost forgotten) budget but the leader of the opposition and his minions come up with some new, more outlandish stuff.  This time it’s about the opioid scourge which Poilievre would have Canadians believe is all the fault of Justin Trudeau and the NDP.

Poilievre followed up his attention-grabbing stunt of being tossed out of the House of Commons for refusing to withdraw comments about “wacko” drug policy with claims that, once upon a time, would have led to widespread condemnation and questions about his suitability to lead this country.  In question period he twice accused Trudeau and his party of pursuing drug polices aimed at killing people. 

That over-the-top falsehood didn’t attract much attention – I heard a clip from it on CBC Radio’s May 11 edition of The House, but that appears to have been the extent of the coverage. Either most reporters missed it, or considered it not newsworthy, just normal political discourse these days. 

For the record, the exchange began when Poilievre asked Trudeau about the safer supply policy, the success of which has been the subject of some dispute among people on the front lines of dealing with the opioid crisis. Trudeau said the government’s approach is to provide “wraparound services in housing, in health care, in addiction treatment and recovery or in culturally appropriate services to those who need them. We will continue to be there to help heal people, not to imprison them.”

The Liberals are there to help kill people right now,” replied Poilievre. “That is exactly what they are doing.”

When some members voiced objections, the Speaker said he would “come back to this issue,” but allowed Poilievre to continue. This time Poilievre was a bit more circumspect. “Mr. Speaker, not only is the Prime Minister‘s policy killing people, but he is by far the most radical ideologue who has ever occupied that job.” A fine distinction: government policies, not the government, are killing people.

B.C. in Crosshairs

Deaths from drug overdoses have risen sharply over the last decade, driven by the increased prevalence of fentanyl among street drugs. More than 42,000 Canadians have died from opioid toxicity since the federal government began national surveillance in 2016, but the reason drug policy has recently bubbled up as an issue in Ottawa originates in British Columbia. 

It is the province hardest hit by opioid deaths, with Vancouver’s downtown eastside a favoured visual backdrop for Poilievre’s “everything is broken” refrain. The Province is also having an election this fall, with the NDP government facing a challenge from a resurgent provincial Conservative party.

Premier David Eby’s government has an agreement with Ottawa for a decriminalization pilot project under which adults are not subject to criminal charges for possession of small amounts of certain illegal drugs.The three-year pilot began in January 2023 but reports of drug use in hospitals,  restaurants and sports fields spooked the NDP government into asking the feds to reimpose penalties on people who use drugs in public places.

It took the Trudeau Liberals about a week to agree to the change, with the Conservatives falsely but conveniently blaming the delay for every opioid death during that time period. The Conservatives also claimed that the government was planning similar pilot projects in Toronto and Montreal. All of these accusations came together in a motion that will likely be voted down next week.    

The motion began with a factual statement – that opioid deaths have increased 166 percent since the Liberals took office – followed by falsehoods about proposals that have come from public health officials in Toronto and Montreal for pilot projects similar to British Columbia’s.

Poilievre’s motion call on the government to reject Toronto’s request “to make deadly hard drugs like crack, cocaine, heroin and meth legal” as well as Montreal’s “vote calling on the federal government to make deadly drugs legal.” The motion also calls for denial of any future such requests. 

There are several factual problems with the Conservative motion. First, the cities are not asking for drugs to be legalized, they are exploring decriminalization, similar to the pilot project in B.C. Second, the Montreal vote took place three years ago and the city is being criticized for its lack of action since then. Finally, Trudeau has said repeatedly that the Liberals will respond only to requests from provincial governments. With Premier Doug Ford’s grandstanding  proclamation that he will fight Toronto’s request “tooth and nail” the Toronto request becomes moot. 

But the accuracy of their motion is of no concern to Poilievre and his party.  Conservatives take full advantage of any opportunity to produce social media clips to make other parties look bad and their own simplistic slogans – “Ban hard drugs. Fund treatment and recovery” – look like real policy responses to a complex problem.

Checking their Record

As mentioned, the numbers more or less bear out the claim of a 166 percent increase in overdose deaths across the country since the Liberals took office, due mainly to the increase in illegal fentanyl. What that statistic doesn’t tell us is that the surge in deaths began with the Harper government, during years when Poilievre was in the Conservative cabinet. In British Columbia, for example, deaths more than doubled between 2014 and 2016, at which point the B.C. government declared a health emergency because of lethal drug overdoses. 

Much like Poilievre and the current group of Conservatives, the Harper government took a hard line on drugs, including an attempt to shut down Insite in Vancouver, Canada’s first supervised safe-injection site. That gambit was thwarted in 2011 by the Supreme Court of Canada which ordered the Conservatives to keep the clinic open because it was saving lives.

A resounding rebuke to the Harper/Poilievre pre-2015 approach to drug deaths comes from Vancouver lawyer Benjamin Perrin, a former Conservative aide. As Harper’s top criminal justice advisor he supported the shutdown of the safe-injection clinic and other Conservative tough-on-crime initiatives. But he changed his mind after leaving Ottawa for Vancouver and wrote a book about the need for a different approach. Here is how he described his change of heart in a 2020 interview with McGill News.        

“I thought supervised consumption sites enabled drug use, and that giving people who were addicted a safe supply of free drugs was an insane policy,” he said “I deeply regret that I let my political ideology take the place of evidence.”

Although it’s not an admirable practice it is normal for parties relegated to the opposition benches to gloss over the shortcomings of their years in power so the bit about the 166 percent increase in deaths can be allowed to stand, with the important caveat that the scourge had its start during the Harper regime.But in Poilievre’s world, nothing succeeds like excess, so the Conservatives came up with another claim that takes cherry-picking and distorting facts to an awe-inspiring level.

The Alberta comparison

“[Trudeau’s] extreme and radical drug policy has increased overdose deaths in British Columbia by 380 per cent,” Poilievre claimed during debate. Conservative deputy leader Melissa Lantsman was more specific, zeroing in on the 15-month old decriminalization pilot project – which she described as “a socialist experiment and plot to legalize the consumption of hard drugs”- as the cause of the increase.

The only part of those statements by the Conservative leadership that stands up to scrutiny is the 380 per cent increase, but the timeframe implied by the Conservatives is all wrong. The increase is from 2015 to 2023 – up from 529 deaths in British Columbia in 2015 to 2,546 in 2023. The “radical drug policy” they attack has two main elements – an expansion of safer supply and supervised consumption sites beginning in 2020, and B.C.’s decriminalization pilot in 2023. 

Despite those efforts, drug overdose deaths in British Columbia have continued to increase since 2020. But in a further rebuke to the Conservative hard line, the increase has been even greater in conservative Alberta which does not have decriminalization or safe supply programs, has closed several overdose prevention sites and concentrated its efforts on treatment and recovery. 

Opioid toxicity deaths per 100,000 population 

202020222023 ( 9 months)Increase 2020-23

 Source: Public Health Agency of Canada

As the Table shows, between 2020 and 2023 opioid deaths per 100,000 population went up 54.6 percent in Alberta, compared with 36.5 percent in British Columbia. The report by the federal government includes only nine months of 2023. However, data from other sources which include preliminary totals for all of 2023 indicate that Alberta’s rate of increase from 2022 to 2023 far outpaced that of British Columbia. 

According to the B.C. Coroners Service, 2,546 people died of overdoses in that province in 2023, the highest number ever recorded and a seven per cent increase compared with 2022. Meanwhile, Alberta RCMP, citing data from the Alberta Substance Use Surveillance System, reported last month that the opioid-related death toll in that province in 2023 was 1,706, a 24 percent increase from 2022. 

So the increase in 2023 in decriminalized B.C. was seven percent. In Alberta, where Poilievre-approved treatment-focussed policy prevails, the increase in 2023 was 24 percent. That the Conservatives were able to carry on with their rhetoric in the face of such inconvenient facts bespeaks aversion to the truth that borders on the fanatical. Indeed, when an NDP member brought up what was going on in Alberta, Melissa Lantsman accused the member of “having an ideological opposition to the province of Alberta and is using the deaths in that province to make a political point. That is gross.” Pot, say “hello” to kettle.

Ya’ara Saks, the federal Minister of mental health and addictions said of Poilievre that “he has weaponized and dehumanized our most vulnerable in society who need critical health care. He has done it to sow fear and to bring back the failed policies of the war-on-drugs era.”

Distorting the facts to make a point about, say, the carbon tax or the cost of living is bad enough. Lying about a tragedy that has already killed 42,000 Canadians to demonize your political opponent is _________ (fill in the blank).