Can Vancouver Afford Another Task Force?
Vancouver’s newly elected Mayor Kennedy Stewart is asking his four-party council for their trust as he moves forward with a broadly worded motion for a new opioid task force.
November 20, 2018
In the final hours of the half-day inaugural Policy and Strategic Priorities meeting, the ten-day-old council agreed that Vancouver’s opioid crisis requires fast action. But debates over the lack of details on the force’s membership and budget—coupled with concerns over police presence in the Downtown Eastside—added hours to the session.
When addressing the transparency missing from his memo, Stewart argued it was an act of political expediency. “I’d just like to save some people before Christmas,” Kennedy said. The deadline of the holiday break appeared to weigh heavy on the mayor—who hopes to ask for more financial aid from provincial and federal levels based on the task forces findings.
“I’m worried that if we focus too much on the big picture, it will stop us from doing some of the small things that really matter,” Steward said, reminding the room that the opioid crisis claims one life daily in Vancouver.
The two speakers still present by the end of the evening, Jordan Westfall and a man who referred to himself as Homeless Dave, argued that Vancouver doesn’t need another task force. They say the only way to affect serious change would be through decriminalizing drugs, but the Vancouver City Charter prevents the municipal government from acting on that request beyond advocating for it.
Sarah Blyth—who unsuccessfully ran for council this year—is one of the city’s most recognizable activists in the opioid crisis. She was working a solo shift at the at the Overdose Prevention Society, the life-saving organization she created, otherwise she would have been there to speak. Because Vancouver already has an opioid task force, Community Action Team, Blyth argues there needs to be an implementation force to put current recommendations to the test. “You see a lot of funding coming in to stop the crisis, but if the funding isn’t spent in the right ways it’s not really useful.”
Blyth is referring to City Council’s unanimous vote on Tuesday to ask the province for more opioid response funding in direct response to Vancouver’s newest figures of suspected overdoses. So far this year, a total of 312 people have died in our city–a figure similar to the death toll at this time last year.
“You see a lot of funding coming in to stop the crisis, but if the funding isn’t spent in the right ways it’s not really useful.”
She argues that Vancouver allotted an inordinate amount of the $3.5 million dollars in opioid response funding to the Vancouver Police Department when Gregor Robertson was mayor.
“I don’t think police should be involved in this health crisis. Any kind of situation they’re involved in on the Downtown Eastside…They ask for names, information and suddenly a health issue escalates into an investigation.”
Police stigmatization and the criminalization of drug users is why COPE councillor Jean Swanson refused to back down on amendments made to Stewart’s motion. After several edits to the wording—during which Swanson completed many rows of knitting—these amendments require staff to include community concerns over police officer’s treatment of drug users in their recommendations.
This focus could stand in Stewart’s way to a good working relationship with the police department he’s now the head of. “I can’t change the criminal code,” Stewart said, adding that the city needs to partner with police, even though parts of the team may require fixing down the road.
Two NPA councillors, the re-elected Melissa De Genova and former school board member Lisa Dominato, were supportive of the memo but concerned over whether a quality task force could be established in the mayor’s goal time frame.
“I’m a big proponent of under promising and over delivering,” De Genova said both in council and over the phone. She says she respects people’s opinions when it comes to “stop talking and start doing” and says she takes no issue with expediency, so long as it’s done right. “I want to make sure we take care in who is included in this task force, that we’re leveraging other resources available to us, and that the terms of reference are clear because people are still learning,” she said, referring to the new council.
In the end, the motion passed–with some quick-start initiatives agreed upon and an understanding that more discussions and recommendations are inevitable. Kennedy may save lives before Christmas. Or his task force may show results parallel to when Robertson engaged his opioid task force in 2017—with 12 mayors from different cities—yet Vancouver saw an increase in opioid related deaths.
But after years of saving lives through her frontline work on the DTES, Blyth seems hopeful and eager to work with Mayor Stewart.
“If anyone’s going to do anything it’s going to be a progressive mayor, premier, and relatively progressive government,” Blyth said, adding that even conservatives should be working to help the most vulnerable Canadians. “It shouldn’t be about politics, it shouldn’t be a blame game, it should just be about doing the work.”