By Michael MacDonald in Halifax
The scourge that is Canada’s opioid addiction crisis was laid bare in the Nova Scotia legislature this week as politicians of every stripe rose to share personal stories about their struggles with this notorious class of drugs.
As members of the house of assembly prepared late Wednesday to vote on a bill aimed at holding opioid manufacturers more accountable for their actions, Progressive Conservative John White described how he became addicted to opioid painkillers in 2005 after he was struck by a drunk driver.
“I was in my own world,” he told a hushed legislature. “I’d rub my face, and it felt like somebody else’s face. Nothing around me mattered to me.”
The member for Glace Bay-Dominion, a hardscrabble riding in eastern Cape Breton, recalled the moment he told his doctor he wanted to end his drug dependence.
“I remember lying in bed in a fetal position, and I didn’t know if I was going to see the morning,” he said, gently sobbing as he wiped tears from his eyes.
“I can remember hearing my eyes move like hydraulic pressure, and my eyes just swishing back and forth …. I remember hearing my fingers move like hydraulic pistons. It was an awful feeling. I remember I didn’t know if I wanted to throw up or just shoot myself.”
White, a volunteer firefighter and community activist, said it took seven years to deal with his addiction. “(But) there are a lot of people in Glace Bay, in Dominion and across the province who are still struggling.”
Across Canada, more than 38,000 opioid-related deaths were recorded between January 2016 and March 2023, according to federal government data.
Last year, 62 people in Nova Scotia died from opioid overdoses. And so far this year, the provincial death toll stands at 35.
During debate in the legislature Wednesday, Public Works Minister Kim Masland recounted how she was stunned when she learned her daughter was addicted to opioids.
“I’m the mother who knows what it’s like to lie awake at night and know that she’s not in her bed,” Masland told the legislature. “There was not a night that went by that I didn’t think: This is probably going to be the night that I’m going to lose her. It didn’t matter how much I tried and she tried …. The monsters and opioids had her.”
Masland said when her daughter made the decision to break her drug habit, the withdrawal symptoms were brutal.
“I will never forget that night, watching her body literally convulsing as these unbelievable, powerful drugs were coming out of her system,” Masland said, adding that the opioid replacement clinic at the Queens General Hospital in Liverpool, N.S., saved her daughter’s life.
The province’s health minister, Michelle Thompson, said the amended provincial legislation, which passed third reading Wednesday, would support a proposed class-action lawsuit launched by British Columbia in 2018. The lawsuit accuses more than 40 opioid makers and distributors of downplaying the harmful effects of the painkillers, misrepresenting the risk of addiction and failing to mention side-effects and withdrawal symptoms.
Several provinces and territories have passed similar legislation. A certification hearing for B.C.’s court action is expected this month.
“With these amendments, we can try to recover past and future health-care costs due to opioid-related diseases, injuries and illnesses and we can hold opioid manufacturers, distributors and their consultants accountable for their deceptive practices,” she said in the legislature.
Brendan Maguire, the Liberal member for Halifax Atlantic, said he has lost friends and family members to addiction.
“I have had friends and family members and community members who have gone to jail and served — and continue to serve — time because of opioid addiction,” he told the legislature.
“What I would say to the (health) minister is: I hope you take (the opioid manufacturers) for every red cent they have, and I hope they burn in hell.”
Kent Smith, a Tory who represents the province’s eastern shore, said his 46-year-old sister died last year from Crohn’s disease, but he said the “real story behind her death” was years of opioid addiction.
“She fought it for a long time, and it was incredibly challenging on our family, and of course on her,” Smith told the legislature. “She lost her friends. She lost family. She lost everything, and ultimately it took her life.”
Banner image: Nova Scotia Public Works Minister Kim Masland poses at Province House in Halifax on Thursday, November 9, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 9, 2023.