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Trevor Tombe: It’s time for a (new) New Deal for the provinces

Commentary

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, and Quebec Premier Francois Legault shake hands as they meet, in Quebec City, Monday, June 10, 2024. Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press.

From Joseph Howe in 1867 to Danielle Smith over a century-and-a-half later, provincial and federal leaders regularly spar over who should tax what, and where the cash should go.

But the scale and intensity of these clashes appear to be mounting right across the country.

In recent surveys, a majority in all regions believe that Canadian federalism has more disadvantages than advantages. Two decades ago, most people—including in the West—thought otherwise.

When asked which government “best represents your interests?” Canadians, by a nearly two-to-one margin, say their provincial government rather than Ottawa.

Of course, Alberta has been the most vocal lately. It held a referendum on equalization, funded national advertising to oppose several federal programs, and is considering leaving the Canada Pension Plan.

But others are increasingly joining the fray.

Two weeks ago, Newfoundland and Labrador announced a constitutional legal challenge to the federal equalization program. They worry that the program does not “ensure provincial governments have sufficient revenues to provide comparable levels of public services at comparable levels of taxation,” per section 36 of Canada’s Constitution.

Their main concern is that the formula ignores public service cost differences, includes resource revenues, and only distributes excess funds to equalization-receiving provinces. While I can’t judge their legal claim, it sets up a new front in the (never-ending) battle over this important federal transfer program.

Is there anything Canada could do to improve the situation?

Blair Gibbs: As public opinion turns, B.C.’s failing drug policies could be deciding factor in the upcoming election

Commentary

Carl Gladue helps carry an empty coffin during a march to mark International Overdose Awareness Day, Vancouver, August 31, 2023. Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press.

The policies of a generation of public health activists and civil liberty campaigners have prioritized the rights of drug users over the community at large, in the name of eliminating stigma and improving “safety.” Not only has this policy agenda not worked, but it has become dramatically at odds with majority public opinion.

Since the public health emergency was declared in B.C. in 2016, powerful synthetic opioids have proliferated and the policy response has been woeful. In fact, we have empowered the highest-demand users, continued to disinvest in law enforcement, released the drug traffickers from any sustained threat of disruption, and, since 2021, liberated the street dealers to grow their customer base by decriminalizing not just possession, but open public use of these illegal substances.

Twenty years of essentially the same direction of policy has been tried, and every year the annual death toll increases, new excuses are made (the recession, austerity, the pandemic) and the same medicine is applied, just at higher doses. Safe consumption sites were followed by safe supply (the progressives won the language war from the start), and then destigmatisation was swiftly followed by decriminalisation.

The result should not surprise us—drug pharmacokinetics and the social effects of new synthetic substances are complex, but human behaviour and economic incentives still work the same way.

So here we are in 2024 with Vancouver and most of the cities of the Pacific Northwest bearing the brunt of this warped philosophy and two decades of denial and drift towards a laissez-faire toleration of hard drug use. This is combined with what Kevin Sabet has labelled a “defeatist attitude” by provincial bureaucrats who think suppressing demand is expensive and futile and any real recovery through treatment and community supports is not possible.

One feature of a healthy democracy is when the consensus of a governing elite falls apart or gets too far ahead of what the public will tolerate. The elastic eventually recoils. Even though public attitudes to drug use are complex, it has been apparent for some time that the residents of B.C.—the worst affected region by the overdose crisis and the epicentre of this progressive drug policy agenda—do not agree with the path that policymakers and health bureaucrats have set them on.

A surveyThe polling firm One Persuasion surveyed 803 Canadian adults online using a nationally representative panel in English. The survey was conducted from May 21 to 24, 2024. The survey’s margin of error is +/-3.5 percent, nineteen times out of twenty. Subgroups have larger margins of error. The results have been weighted for accuracy by age, gender, region, and past provincial and federal votes using the most recent census data from Statistics Canada. my firm recently commissioned shows how out of step this agenda has become from the mainstream views of B.C. voters. Our survey wanted to explore how the public understands the drugs and addiction issue, and what they support as the goal of drug policy. We found that a large majority strongly oppose the government’s approach to drugs, and most B.C. voters reject policies like safe supply and the harm reduction philosophy of drug activists in the province.

A majority of British Columbians (55 percent) disapprove of the provincial government’s record on drugs and addiction. Fewer than one in five approve of their record. More young people 18-34 disapprove than approve. Of those who voted NDP in 2020, twice as many (45 percent) disapprove as approve (23 percent) of the NDP government’s record.

To understand better how drugs and addiction might impact voter intentions for the upcoming provincial election in October, the survey asked respondents to rate the performance of the provincial government across key policy themes. Drugs and addiction is the area where voters deemed the government to be doing a bad or very bad job (76 percent)—higher than any other theme, including homelessness (73 percent) and the cost of living (72 percent).

Source: One Persuasion. Graphic credit: Janice Nelson.

A large majority, across education and income categories, thought the B.C. government had done a bad job on drugs and addiction. Almost half (46 percent) thought they had done a very bad job. Even two-thirds (65 percent) of 2020 NDP voters felt this way, which is very bad news for David Eby and any chance of motivating his supporters to turn out.

British Columbians are also at odds with the broader goals of drug policy being pursued at the present time. When asked which statement comes closest to their view, more than eight in ten (84 percent) of British Columbians said: “The most important goal for drug policy is… to make sure those who become addicted to drugs are guaranteed fast access to treatment and get supported to enter recovery, reconnect with family and rebuild their lives.”

Source: One Persuasion. Graphic credit: Janice Nelson.

Only a small minority (16 percent) thought the most important goal was “to make sure those who become addicted to drugs can access safer supplies of their preferred drug so they do not risk overdose, and only access treatment when they are ready.”

When asked about their opinion on drug use and how society should respond, British Columbians do not endorse the libertarian position which prioritises the freedom of drug users. Instead, they broadly support a more communitarian position on the issue. More than eight in ten (82 percent) believe that “Drug use impacts on other people and society should discourage drug taking, warn about its dangers, and expect drug users to engage in treatment.” Two-thirds of young voters 18-34 also support this statement, as do four in five NDP voters.

In contrast, only a small minority (18 percent) think that “Drug use is a matter of personal choice and society should respect people’s rights, provide safer supplies of drugs, and not stigmatize those who use drugs.” 

Public health awareness campaigns have focused on reducing stigma and harm reduction campaigners have argued that this is a major barrier preventing drug users from addressing their addiction and seeking treatment. British Columbians disagree. Of all the factors driving the current drug crisis, “’Stigma’ around drug use which means users are marginalised and left to fend for themselves” is deemed the least significant factor, ranked last out of 12 factors.

Highly potent synthetic drugs— which are cheap to produce, hard to detect, and easy to transport—are not going anywhere. What has to change is a policy agenda that has fueled demand and made the problem worse—not just for those suffering from addiction but the wider public too. Responses to this survey clearly suggest policies and the record of the Eby government in addressing drugs and addiction effectively will be a key deciding factor for voters when they come to vote in October’s election.

The new PROSPER group, just recently launched in Vancouver, offers a long-awaited alternative to this policy agenda based on investing in prevention, treatment, and recovery. They highlight a province like Alberta, which offers an alternative path that opposes decriminalisation and so-called safe supply and includes real investments in recovery services.

If the public were ever on board with B.C.’s policy agenda, they are not anymore. The tide of opinion has turned. Politicians in the province and across Canada need to catch up.