Today in Question Period, I asked the minister of mental health and addictions what the government is doing to respond to the escalating health and safety concerns associated with substance abuse in Cowichan.
S. Furstenau: I want to start by thanking the Minister of Mental Health and Addictions for her visit to my riding last fall. We invited the minister so that she could learn about the terrible impact that addictions and substance misuse is having on our community and presented her with a proposal for temporary treatment facilities and a safe drug supply pilot in Cowichan. The proposal did not receive funding.
Since her visit, the problem has only worsened. The Cowichan overdose prevention site has received over 54,000 visits to date, averaging over 622 visits per week in the last three months. These numbers are second only to The Harbour and Rock Bay Landing in Victoria, and that’s higher than all other rural or suburban OPS sites on the Island. Yet the response from a higher level of government has not been commensurate with this data.
At the end of December, we had two violent deaths in Duncan and another unrelated stabbing last week. Our homeless outreach staff is fearful for their safety. Other front-line workers express despair about the outlook of an epidemic that’s showing signs of only growing. Residents are frustrated and angry.
My question is for the Minister of Mental Health and Addictions. What is the government’s plan today for the unprecedented problems arising from substance abuse in Cowichan?
Hon. J. Darcy: Thank you to the member of the Third Party for her question. I want to begin by acknowledging and thanking the member for her advocacy and for her passion on these very, very important issues in her community. I was pleased to visit her community last fall and, also, a second time a year before that. I want to acknowledge the very, very serious challenges that exist in her community as well as in communities across British Columbia.
We are very much coping today with the consequences of a system of mental health and addictions care that has been neglected for many years. I know that’s hard on communities. It’s hard on people. We are embarking on major actions. We’re already taking concrete actions in Cowichan and across the province.
Across British Columbia, we’ve invested $10 million in grants for community agencies that provide counselling at low cost or no cost, because access to mental health and addictions care should not depend on the size of your bank account, but up until now it has. We’re beginning to change that.
In Duncan, the Hiiye’yu Lelum House of Friendship received a grant that will enable them to provide counselling services for 700 more sessions for people living with mental health and substance use issues.
We are very proud of our partnership with First Nations in helping to build a system that is led by Indigenous people — Indigenous mental health and wellness solutions. As part of that, the Cowichan Tribes received a $184,000 grant for culturally safe primary care and mental health and substance use care.
Housing and supportive housing is a critical part of this if we’re addressing some of the root causes that relate to mental health and addictions and the overdose crisis. The Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing has made record investments in housing, including in supportive housing. In Duncan, B.C. Housing is actively working on several new housing options for people experiencing homelessness, including support services.
We recognize that there is much, much more to do. We have many years of neglect to overcome, but we are getting started. With political will and working together, we will get there.
Mr. Speaker: House Leader, Third Party, on a supplemental.
S. Furstenau: I want to commend the minister and the government for working on these upstream solutions to a crisis that we are now seeing the results of downstream impacts. However, we are seeing this crisis in real time right now in Cowichan, and we are desperate.
In response to the B.C. Coroners Service report on illicit drug deaths, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry was quoted saying that decriminalization and pharmaceutical options for those who are dependent on toxic street drugs is something that needs to be considered. This is exactly what the Cowichan leadership group is asking for. We need access to a safe drug supply, temporary treatment facilities and transitional housing for people coming out of treatment, and we need it urgently. We are in crisis, and we need a crisis response.
The Cowichan leaders have written to ten separate provincial ministries outlining the escalating problems in the Cowichan Valley that are arising from substance use and homelessness. My question is again to the Minister of Mental Health and Addictions. What is your government and ministry going to do today on these urgent needs to help the Cowichan community out of this crisis?
Hon. J. Darcy: Thank you again to the member opposite. There certainly is an enormous amount of work to do, and we are working overtime to build that better system of mental health and addictions, including ramping up, every single day, every week, every month, our response to the overdose crisis.
In every health region across the province, we now have access to rapid addiction services, rapid addiction clinics. In Cowichan, in particular, we’ve added more in-patient addiction medicine consult services at the Cowichan Hospital. We’ve also expanded same-day walk-in services and counselling in Duncan.
Earlier this week, the coroner reported that for the first time since this crisis began, that we’ve seen a decline in deaths across the province for the first time, including in Cowichan.
But we recognize that whether it’s in Cowichan or provincewide, a reduction of 36 percent of deaths provincewide and 32 percent in the Cowichan area, every single one of these deaths is a tragedy. It is devastating for the families and the communities involved.
We will have more to say very soon on additional supports to the Cowichan Valley to support further treatment options and community wellness, but we are working overtime. We are working with all of our partners on the front line, including working with our partners in Cowichan Valley. Together we will get this done, and we will get the support to folks in Cowichan Valley and across British Columbia that they so very much deserve.