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United front

In a remarkable turnaround, the NDP, BC Liberals, and Greens appear to have found compromise on the all-party overdose crisis committee.
The legislature in Victoria (JL IMAGES /

BC’s grand experiment in non-partisan cooperation is back on track, after MLAs from all three parties worked out a compromise position from which to start studying the overdose crisis.

It was a remarkable turnaround of tone and attitude from when the committee was first announced, when BC Green and Liberal MLAs held a press conference to blast the majority NDP for ignoring their advice on the terms of reference.

The Greens and Liberals wanted the 10-person committee to focus on implementing the recommendations from March’s death review panel report on overdoses by the BC Coroners Service. The NDP wanted a much wider, and longer, look at the crisis.

In the end, both sides hashed it out behind the scenes to emerge at their first meeting last week roughly on the same page.

It bodes well for the success of the committee, and is good to see.

“We’ve all come together to the table knowing this isn’t a partisan issue,” NDP MLA and committee chair Niki Sharma said in an interview. “I’m really hopeful, and feel that energy around the table.”

That tone was prevalent in the committee’s first meeting, as the group of MLAs came together to plot out their much-anticipated work.

In a nod to the BC Liberals and Greens, the committee will begin by interviewing the 23 experts behind the death review panel, to discuss their recommendation on decriminalisation, safe supply, treatment and more. It was a lengthy and ambitious report, with the potential for 30, 60, and 90-day action plans, as well as longer-term work for the province.

“There will be lots of work to do and lots of people to listen to,” said Sharma. “We’ve set up structures to make sure we can manage and figure out the next steps for each stage. I think so far we’ve all been really focused on doing the best job we can.”

After that, committee members have agreed to call people like Dr. Bonnie Henry and Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe, as well as set up a confidential process for drug users and front-line advocates to provide testimony in private to the MLAs if they are uncomfortable sharing their personal stories publicly due to trauma or stigma.

The idea of in-camera testimony raised some eyebrows amongst the BC Liberals and Greens, but here too the sides found a compromise with an agreement that the vast majority of the committee’s work, when possible, would be done publicly in camera and on the record. That seemed to satisfy everyone involved.

In another nod to the opposition parties, the governing New Democrats threw open the idea of interim reports from the committee, rather than forcing it to bottle up all its knowledge for one final report in November when people are dying at record rates every month in the interim.

The government at first appeared hesitant about this, out of fear the opposition MLAs could try and jam it for missing deadlines in the death review panel report with carefully-timed and politically-charged interim reports. But all sides seemed to have rejected this route as well.

Experts from other countries will also be potential witnesses, as committee members set up a hybrid attendance model that will allow for remote testimony for those who aren’t in Victoria or Vancouver.

“I’m very excited about some of the terms of reference in there,” said Sharma.

“We will think about what other services are working outside the province in other jurisdictions, and this common problem a lot of jurisdictions are facing about the toxic drug supply, there’s a lot we can learn.”

BC Green leader Sonia Furstenau said she was “really heartened” by what she heard during the first meeting.

“I really appreciate everybody's input and comments, and I think it puts us off to a really good start as a committee, that we are, essentially, on the same page that it is urgent, that we need to be oriented towards solutions and actions,” she said.

Leader of the Opposition Shirley Bond emphasized how “time is of the essence,” which was echoed by other committee members.

“As we sit having this conversation, all of us are heartbroken to know that seven people a day are dying,” said Bond. “I think that compels us to be urgent in our work, to do our homework, to be willing to come to this work with an open mind and look at what is needed to help mitigate and, most importantly, stop people from dying.”

It’s not entirely clear if the 10 MLAs will uncover new ways to tackle the opioid crisis that experts and others haven’t already proposed.

Instead, what’s more likely – and what would be the best possible outcome – would be for the three parties to agree upon a common set of principles, goals, actions and timelines for the province.

Then, they’d put the word out to their supporters, whether they be New Democrat, BC Liberal or Green, to rally behind these goals and work to convince the larger public of their necessity.

Together, the three parties might be able to bring the larger British Columbia public on side to issues like prescribing a free safe supply of clean drugs, or removing criminal penalties for small personal possession, that some people out there still don’t understand or can’t accept.

If that happens, and the politicians stop taking cheap shots at each other for who caused this crisis, it would be a remarkable achievement indeed.

So far, in what is a pleasant surprise, the all-party committee is working.