Alex MacDonald: The Conservatives are offering a serious response to Canada’s opioid crisis

For conservatives, the government cannot maintain in good conscience a policy that reinforces the status quo of addiction
Two men are seen at an outdoor supervised consumption site in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, on Thursday, May 27, 2021. Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press.

Pierre Poilievre’s recent video message “Everything Feels Broken” has unsurprisingly drawn the ire of Canada’s elites. Poilievre’s monologue included a full-throated denouncement of progressive drug policy, which he labeled “a failed experiment,” and a contrasting proposal for government-sponsored recovery programs. Poilievre has since complemented his video message with an op-ed piece that further laid out his policy thinking on the topic.

While wading into the deluge of criticism that the Leader of Canada’s Conservative Party has faced, it’s worth discerning whether the critics have taken issue with the person or the policy. Such a crisis as this deserves an honest policy discussion and our political leaders are responsible to facilitate it. 

Drawing on a recent reference point may be helpful. Let’s go back to August 2021. Canada is in the midst of a federal election campaign and the Leader of the Conservative party, then Erin O’Toole, holds a media availability at a recovery center in Burnaby, B.C. The sign on the podium that day reads: Ending the Opioid Crisis. O’Toole announced to listeners:

Every single day, 17 Canadians die from addiction. This is a national emergency. And COVID has made it even worse. Since the start of the pandemic, opioid-related deaths have almost doubled. Families across this country are mourning lost children, lost parents, lost partners. As prime minister, I will treat the opioid epidemic as the health crisis that it is. That means that our focus should be on helping people with addictions get the help they need to recover. Law enforcement focuses on dealers and traffickers—not those suffering from an addiction.

Sound familiar? It should, because it’s the same policy offered by the same political party today, just 15 months apart. Granted, O’Toole and Poilievre differ in their political styles and delivery. Poilievre positioned his remarks within the context of his usual gatekeepers and freedom narrative, whereas O’Toole’s was within the “this is not the conservative party of your grandfather” tenor. Politically, it’s much easier to make overt critiques and take sharper stances outside of an election campaign. But the policy is remarkably similar. 

While Poilievre has called into question the wholesale validity of harm reduction as a policy option, O’Toole argued that such policies would never be enough on their own. Ideologically, the difference between these policy stances is not substantial and ultimately resides on the same end of the policy spectrum. Both share a degree of skepticism towards harm reduction policies and “safe” injection sites—Poilievre is skeptical enough to turf the policies, calling them “failed experiments,” while O’Toole recognized that they would never be enough to actually solve the crisis. 

The end goal is the same, however: Canadians deserve government supports through the health-care system that provides them the opportunity to recover. Two conservative leaders presenting a similar approach should not be surprising, but critics have oddly overlooked this. 

Ironically, in August 2021 the Canadian pundit and polling class were rather aligned in their response to O’Toole’s opioid policy stance, agreeing that he was strategically moving to the Left on a vibrant social issue to court some key voting demographics. It’s curious that the conclusion has changed now that the messenger has changed.

Despite this, it must be recognized that it is a significant milestone for the Conservative Party of Canada to be addressing the topic of substance abuse outside of a law enforcement narrative. For Conservative Party leaders to be framing substance abuse as a health issue in compassionate language is a momentous shift well worth recognizing and commending.

Both in the 2021 election campaign and Poilievre’s recent video, a lot went unsaid. Specifically, why are Conservatives proposing (and in some cases pioneering) this recovery-orientated drug policy suite in Canada that seems so at odds with the status quo and supposed majority opinion? Both Poilievre and O’Toole offered the what and the how, but why? 

Conservatives generally believe that government, at its core, should be laser-focused on nurturing and protecting the common good, which is understood as providing the social setting and opportunity in which each individual can flourish. Put simply, good and well-ordered government helps citizens flourish. In practice, this can be seen in and through policies that guarantee a free and fair market, support access to opportunity, social supports for the most vulnerable, and protection of social goods and institutions like family, faith, community, and tradition. 

But conservatives also generally agree that government intervention should be limited and, when necessary, done at the lowest level of competent government possible. Addressing an individual’s substance abuse problem is rather intimate and invasive and has thus been traditionally beyond the scope of federal government policy according to those of a conservative disposition. Traditionally, it has mostly been seen as something to be addressed by family, community, and private medical intervention. 

A national crisis of addiction and overdose has changed this though, compelling Conservatives to contemplate anew what government intervention may look like. Thus, as conservatives consider the government’s role in drug policy beyond law enforcement, some guiding elements can be distilled: it should support the common good, foster human flourishing, and it should be the last resort or final option. 

Substance abuse, in most cases, diminishes the person and robs them of their ability to flourish. Thus, the government’s intervention should be clearly on the positive side to help the individual overcome, recover, and flourish in their lives. When you have failed yourself, when your family, friends, and faith community have all left you behind and the only thing left for you is the government social safety net, it ought to be fully geared toward your recovery. The government has nothing to lose and the individual has all to gain. For conservatives, the government cannot maintain in good conscience a policy that reinforces the status quo of addiction. 

It’s difficult therefore to fit harm reduction policies within a conservative paradigm because conservatives don’t just want to keep people alive, they want them to have the chance to regain their livelihood, to be full and productive members of society, free to pursue their dreams and fulfill their purpose. If harm reduction policies do not obviously foster recovery, then they are irresponsible for a government to be supporting since they do not align with the core purpose of government. 

Those who will vigorously respond that “recovery is only possible if you’re alive” fail to see beyond the immediate and actually curtail the potential of both the individual and the government that seeks to serve them. Assessing a government’s effectiveness in this area by highlighting how many people have been saved by so-called harm reduction policies is setting the bar quite low. Asking how many people have recovered their lives and livelihoods is a much more serious accounting of government intervention. 

When the Government of Alberta, under the leadership of Jason Kenney, opened itself up to the possibility of supporting recovery and treatment for substance abuse instead of or in addition to harm reduction, the potential unleashed has been incredible. The Government of Alberta has now created and funded more than 8,000 addiction treatment spaces, doubling the number they had originally promised in 2019. And no Albertan has to pay to access treatment at any of these spaces. 

None of this is to say that the liberal tradition does not care for the individual or the common good, but based on the liberal-progressive policies that have been instituted it’s obvious that they have gone in a totally different ideological direction. Theirs is a direction of protecting and celebrating individual autonomy, which ought to be understood in stark contrast to the brand of conservatism that upholds and champions personal freedom. But the liberal exaltation of individual autonomy has led to the short-sighted policies of safe supply and safe injection sites perpetuating a national crisis that has increasingly robbed Canadians of their autonomy.

Conservatives have an alternative message rooted in their deep belief in the individual’s ability to overcome and flourish and every government’s core responsibility to facilitate that flourishing. Such conservative principles have produced recovery-oriented policies and serious results in the face of our national crisis. It’s a shame that the state of our political and (politicized) medical discourse has left little space for these contributions. Thankfully, courageous Conservative leaders, past and present, have held the line and offered more hope to those suffering in addiction. 

The disproportionate backlash Poilievre has faced is not rooted in any serious policy discussion. It’s not the policy that is being debated, but rather the politician and his party.

Sign up for FREE and receive The Hub’s weekly email newsletter.

You'll get our weekly newsletter featuring The Hub’s thought-provoking insights and analysis of Canadian policy issues and in-depth interviews with the world’s sharpest minds and thinkers.