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Stéphane Sérafin: Overdosing on ‘compassion’

Commentary

Review of: Overdose: Heartbreak and Hope in Canada’s Opioid Crisis
Author: Benjamin Perrin
Publisher: Penguin Canada, 2020

Benjamin Perrin’s third book, Overdose, is nominally about the increase in overdose-related deaths brought on by powerful synthetic opioids such as fentanyl in British Columbia and elsewhere. In truth, however, it serves primarily to chronicle the author’s own conversion, from tough-on-crime conservative and chief justice advisor to former prime minister Stephen Harper, to advocate for what he calls “compassionate” methods of dealing with drug abuse—i.e., “safe injection” sites and “safe supply” programs. The book is not shy about this fact. Indeed, it even opens with Perrin affirming that he had once been the type to vote for the Conservative Party, no matter what, and closes with a call for readers to share his new beliefs as widely as possible.

The impulse to convert others likely explains why Perrin mailed a copy of Overdose to my office in the aftermath of a brief social media exchange. Probably, he hoped that I would be swayed by the book’s narrative, which is designed to impress upon the reader the sense that opioid overdose deaths constitute an emergency authorizing virtually any public policy response. As the author attempts to relate through a series of overdose anecdotes and interviews with law enforcement agents and social activists, the dramatic increase in deaths brought on by synthetic opioids has rendered the traditional prohibitionist approach to drugs futile—though Perrin now also believes that this model, which as he puts it frames drug use as a moral issue rather than a medical one, was fundamentally misguided from the outset.

Unfortunately, the book offers very little to surprise the reader who is already familiar with the arguments of drug policy activists. If one has already rejected such views, for example, because they neglect the social costs of rampant, open-air drug abuse, then dismissing the conclusions impressed by Overdose follows as a matter of course. Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside may be squalid, but for Perrin, this appears to only present a problem for those who live there, and not for the broader community. In the author’s telling, these conditions further amount to a sort of inevitability that we can do little to remedy. No doubt it would be better if the individuals in question simply stopped using or reduced their use. But there are lives at stake and they are powerless in the face of their compulsions. A compassionate approach therefore requires that we prevent people from dying and possibly manage the symptoms of their condition, and possibly, eventually curb consumption in some cases.

That said, reading Overdose is certainly not a waste of time. For one, the book has a few genuinely helpful chapters, in which Perrin pulls back from proselytizing and adopts a less heavy-handed public policy lens. In one such chapter, he provides a technical overview of the threat posed by synthetic opioids and the various responses available. The author’s analysis here seems to reveal that the core issue, from a pure mortality perspective, is one of inconsistent dosing by those who refine pure fentanyl into drugs for street consumption. Some people are getting fentanyl when they mean to consume something else, but quite often those who are overdosing are getting exactly what they want. So much for the “contaminated” or “toxic” drug supply.

More useful still are the book’s insights into how someone like Perrin came to be converted to “compassionate” drug policy. Reading through Overdose, it was striking how much his new beliefs remain consistent with those he now intends to disclaim. That Perrin once understood drug use as a moral issue—in which drug users assume consequences entirely of their own choosing—is precisely why he can now claim that it is a purely medical one—i.e., because drug use results from addiction, and addiction renders those who use drugs incapable of choice and thus incapable of blame. Both positions assume that individuals can only bear responsibility for choices they are fully free to make. Both also de-emphasize the socially destructive effects of drug use, and therefore the profound injustice that it inflicts on others. That we should help those who suffer from addiction is obvious, but Perrin would have us believe that “compassion” requires that we enable behaviour that is both self- and socially destructive while requiring that others bear its costs without complaint.

This same continuity of thought appears in Perrin’s understanding of the criminal justice system, which he suggests is aimed at influencing the choices people make—and not, for instance, ensuring the public order required for human flourishing. On this essentially behaviourist view, a criminal prohibition that does not deter those who suffer from addiction is “pointless”: it is not an “evidence-based” policy. In fact, if those who use drugs are simply responding to “trauma”, and if one can only be responsible for what one fully chooses to do, then criminal prohibition amounts to a form of unjust discrimination. As the author repeatedly asserts, criminal prohibitions are a source of stigma that entices drug users to find newer, riskier ways of getting high. As is typical of drug policy activists, he believes that stigma is the reason that overdoses continue to occur notwithstanding the compassionate policies already in place in Vancouver and elsewhere. Stigma is not valuable as a means of marking destructive behaviour as such. Stigma must be stigmatized.

From my vantage point, passages in which Perrin compares drug prohibition to the traditional Indian caste system, or in which he insinuates that the prohibition of drug use is equivalent to race segregation by quoting Martin Luther King Jr., only served to confirm the absurdity of his overall position. And yet, such comparisons are difficult to avoid once one accepts Perrin’s framing. On such a view, prohibitions on drug use really are unjust laws that prevent drug users from receiving the “care” they need. And these laws are particularly unjust to the extent that they create stigma around drug use. Never mind that there are cogent reasons to mark drug use with opprobrium and those who engage in it with at least some level of disapproval. Such a view of the criminal justice system is already outside the bounds of Perrin’s understanding of its role.

Perrin’s purportedly evidence-based perspective thus masks a set of ideological commitments that are in surprising continuity with the beliefs he is now intent on disclaiming. The end result is an assertion of the primacy of bare life not just over the social consequences of addiction, but also over individual dignity. It is ironic, then, that Perrin complains about the unintended consequences of COVID restrictions in an afterword included in the latest edition of the book. Indeed, it is hard not to see in his endorsement of safe injection sites and safe supply programs the same fetishism for raw numbers that informed much of the pandemic response. Deaths are easily tracked. The social consequences of drug abuse and the quality of life experienced by those who abuse opiates are not. The conversion journey recounted in Overdose remains blind to these broader realities. But perhaps the author’s journey is not yet complete.

Jeremy Roberts: It’s time to vote for our own interests, millennials. No one else will

Commentary

I don’t own a home yet.

It’s a little embarrassing to admit that, as a former elected official. Most people would assume that politicians are all, at the very least, homeowners. Sometimes, as we’ve learned recently, they even own two or three!

But it’s a less surprising fact when you know that I’m a millennial. 

Born in 1991, the year the Soviet Union collapsed, I am part of a generation that spans the 15 years between 1980 and 1995.

While we remember fax machines, dial-up, and grandma’s rotary phone, we grew up alongside the explosion of the internet, cell phones, and social media. 9/11 happened when we were children and most of us started working right when the 2008 Global Recession hit. 

We are the children of the baby boomers. Our parents listen to 70s & 80s rock and disco. For the most part, many of them owned the homes we grew up in.

But while many of us have grown to appreciate Queen, ABBA, and the Stones, home ownership has not been passed down quite so easily. 

The millennial housing hurdle

75 percent of Baby Boomers in Canada own their own home. For millennials, that number slips to around 50 percent. The picture is much grimmer in our major cities, with only 30 percent of millennials in Toronto and Vancouver owning a home. For those millennials who do own homes, financial support from their parents is a key determining factor. Dual incomes are almost always a necessity.

These statistics don’t surprise me. In my broader friend group, only five couples have broken into the housing market in the past four years. All of them have dual incomes and four of them benefited from financial support from their parents for the down payments. Ask any of them and they will readily admit that those factors were the only things that made it possible. Timing was also helpful. 

For those who haven’t broken into the market yet and might not be able to benefit from parental support, the picture is pretty bleak. The average list price of a home in Canada in July was $757,300. In Toronto and Vancouver, that number topped $1 million. The average annual income for a millennial is currently $44,093. Of note, millennial homeowners’ after-tax income is more than double that of millennials who aren’t homeowners, meaning the disparity is quite large within the upper and lower echelons of the cohort.

With numbers like these, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that one in four millennials in Canada has given up on the dream of home ownership entirely. The math just doesn’t add up.

While my partner and I aren’t there yet, we haven’t given up. With my partner recently graduating, we have now become a dual-income couple. We both have graduate degrees and strong skill sets. We were both blessed to have received financial support from our parents to help lower the burden of post-secondary education. And, as a government employee on the sunshine list, I am fortunate to earn an income of over $100,000. We’re strivers and with some hard work and careful planning, we’ll get there eventually.

But it won’t be easy. And if we didn’t have all of those positive factors running in our favour, we’d probably be close to giving up too. 

Many older Canadians point to the fact that they too faced hurdles in entering the housing market at our age given high interest rates at the time of their purchase. Interest rates are a key part of the problem, to be sure, but millennials today are facing a complex matrix of challenges. Not only are we vying with high interest rates which make monthly payments difficult, but we are also dealing with escalating real estate prices (which necessitate astronomical down payments), stagnant wages, and an overly competitive market that is fueling bidding wars. While I would never downplay the significant sacrifices that my parent’s generation had to make to buy a home and raise a family, those challenges shouldn’t minimize the compounding hurdles that we now face. 

Every millennial is awake to this challenge because every one of us is either living it or watching a friend struggle with it. For our generation, housing will be one of the defining policy problems we tackle in our lifetimes.

The consequences of not meeting this challenge are clear. As more young people are denied the chance to enter the housing market, they are barred from the chance to build equity in the same way their parents did (worsening that intra-cohort wealth disparity). They fall more to the mercy of a viciously competitive rental market. And they are faced with difficult decisions regarding starting a family, given the barriers to upsizing from rental condos to family dwellings.

Many people have written about the solutions to this problem, including here at The Hub. The fundamental realities of supply and demand necessitate a mammoth effort to construct more units across the country to meet the demand and pull prices down. Debates are also happening about the impact of immigration on the housing supply. It’s a circular problem: you can’t build more houses without an influx of skilled labour from abroad, but we don’t have enough houses for the people already here. 

However, despite the fact that we largely agree on the problem and the solutions, this issue continues to cause headaches to governments across the country.

Recently, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came under fire for remarks suggesting that it is difficult for the federal government to tackle the housing crisis because it isn’t an area of federal responsibility.

Critics pounced. In the grand scheme of salient issues in Canada, housing is arguably in the top three. Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre was quick to denounce the comments, hammering home on his message of “removing gatekeepers to get more houses built.”

Likewise, the issue is plaguing other levels of government. Despite their positive efforts to tackle the housing supply shortage provincewide, the Ontario government is facing blowback over an auditor general report suggesting that its process for allocating more land for housing may have been mismanaged. Meanwhile, Olivia Chow, Toronto’s new mayor, is coming face to face with the reality that her ambitious goals on affordable housing may not be realistic without more funds from above.

Jurisdictionally, I don’t think the answer is as confusing as the prime minister might suggest. The federal government must step up financially to support the provinces and municipalities, who in turn need to get the right mix of new builds approved and the right workers trained to build them. 

You get what you vote for

So, who then bears the moral responsibility to see this through? The answer, in my opinion, is millennials.

Since 2019 millennial voters have made up the largest voting bloc in Canada. However, people of my generation have consistently lagged behind older generations in voter turnout. This means that, disproportionately, the political class has an incentive to consider the needs and wants of older generations, who, as I have already noted, have much higher levels of home ownership already. NIMBYism amongst older generations is tempting to politicians.

That NIMBYism—a key deterrent for densification and development policies—comes in every political stripe. Progressives appeal to them on ecological protection and anti-development measures. Conservatives reach out with promises to protect pensioners and “communities”. 

Real estate signage showing a home that has sold is seen on Monday, May 15, 2023 in Montreal. Christinne Muschi/The Canadian Press.

I remember door-knocking in my recent election in a suburban part of my former riding that tended to vote conservative. Most residents in this neighbourhood were older homeowners, living in post-war bungalows on large plots of land. Consistently, the number one issue I was hearing at the door from people committed to voting was concern over new development in the area. Alternatively, many of the millennials I’d meet had little interest in the election. While we don’t know for certain what the vote turnout by age was in the 2022 Ontario election, the anemic 43 percent turnout rate combined with historical trend data would suggest that young voters weren’t rushing to the polls. I’d bet that most of those older voters did though.  

By not voting, running for office, or participating actively in politics, millennials cede the ground on this battle to those who do show up (and to those who are the loudest).

Now, I’m not saying this needs to be a generational zero-sum game. I’m confident that both sides can prosper with the right policies. But first, the millennials need to get into the game.

And, as far as I can see, smart housing policy is open for any party or leader to seize, regardless of partisan affiliation. They need the right policies and the right language.

Can the Conservatives capitalize?

Recent polling is promising on this front for Conservative Leader Poilievre. Defying traditional logic that says that millennials are overwhelmingly more progressive, Abacus polling shows Poilievre opening up a 9-point lead over Prime Minister Trudeau amongst millennial voters. While there could be many factors at play, I’d wager that Poilievre’s consistent, simple messaging on home ownership has something to do with it.

So why would the Conservatives be tackling this challenge, given the political risk of angering another segment of the voting population?

Well, firstly, as I’ve argued above, the millennial vote is up for grabs. As we’ve learned in recent years (2015 Canadian federal election, 2016 Brexit election, 2016 U.S. election), elections can be won by expanding the voter pool, rather than going after the same ones as everyone else. Prime Minister Trudeau did this himself. In 2015 he appealed to millennial voters with a promise to legalize marijuana and do politics differently (“sunny ways”). Younger voters turned out, helping to deliver his majority. This a proof point that, given the right incentive, my generation will get out to the polls.

But there’s a second, less talked about factor that might be at play. A quick Google search of the federal Conservative caucus reveals that almost 20 of the 117 CPC members are millennials themselves. That’s almost one-fifth of the caucus. Among its ranks are members of the leadership team, like Melissa Lantsman and Eric Duncan, shadow cabinet members like Adam Chambers, and even their newest MP, the recently-elected Shuv Majumdar. The traditional view of the Conservative Party being the party of the older, Caucasian man is changing. 

Millennials need to get in the game

As I know from my time in office, having a seat at the table matters. I was the second youngest MPP in my term in office and joined a caucus that included fellow millennials like Andrea Khanjin, Stephen Lecce, and Dave Piccinni. I’ve written here before about how much of a difference an elected official can make. Being able to bring relevant experience—including generational perspective on issues like housing—is critical to the policymaking process. 

Running for office is daunting at any age. For millennials, they need to consider whether they want to subject themselves to the vitriol of campaigning and social media (see my reflections here). They also need to ask themselves if they can afford to run, given that many of us don’t yet have equity built up as a result of the challenges I’ve discussed above. Beyond this, many also question the wisdom of taking a job that requires long hours and many days away from their partners and families for less pay than most could make doing similar work and hours in the private sector. Don’t forget, most of them are still trying to save up for a home!

From personal experience I can say that all of these challenges were present during my time in office. The financial strain of my first election was grueling and the constant trips back and forth from my riding to Queen’s Park were not easy on my relationship. And without a supportive partner I’d be a lot further away from home ownership. 

I’ve often quoted my former boss and mentor, the late Jim Flaherty, who said that public service “is the most satisfying and personally enriching career you will ever find”. These words are very true. But if that is the moral reason for millennials to enter public office, here is the practical one: in order to tackle the policy challenges that face us, like housing, we need more of us to run for elected office.        

Our generation needs to step up. We need to: (1) demand more from our elected officials; (2) vote, vote, vote (the math is clear, we can make a difference!); and (3) increase our participation (including by running!). All parties should take note. A play for millennial voters, particularly by solving the housing crisis, could lead to long-term political gains by locking down a key cohort of voters.

As fictional President Jed Bartlett says in the television political masterclass The West Wing, “Decisions are made by those who show up”. It’s time for us to take that advice.