EDMONTON -- City council will consider lobbying the federal government to declare the opioid crisis a national public health emergency and to have them help pay for treatment programs after a motion was considered on Friday.

Academics, advocates, and some with lived experience came to council’s executive committee with a consensus: More needs to be done to help address the opioid crisis.

Last year marked the deadliest year on record for overdose deaths in Alberta.

Nearly 1,300 Albertans died from drug overdose last year – mostly from opioids.

Scott McKeen, Ward 6 councillor, brought forward a motion to help raise the profile of the opioid crisis and start further lobbying for future assistance.

“We are in the midst of a global pandemic and COVID has taken up so much of our personal airtime,” McKeen said during a media availability.

“Yet we have this shadow pandemic: the opioid overdoses,” he added. “About 100 Albertans are dying each month. Those are not acceptable losses.”


McKeen brought forward a motion with a number of elements to the City of Edmonton’s executive committee for consideration.

The first included to directing the mayor to write a letter to the prime minister to declare the opioid crisis a national health emergency and that the federal government consider decriminalizing opioids.

The last part of McKeen’s motion included asking the federal government to fund and accommodate overdose prevention programs in Edmonton like utilizing pharmaceutical alternatives to illicit drugs while under medical supervision.

The committee also considered engaging with the provincial government to designate Edmonton’s five future supportive housing sites as therapeutic communities with addiction treatment including pharmaceutical alternatives to illegal street drugs for those who need them.

Giving pharmaceutical alternatives in supportive housing would help ensure anyone can recover from their addiction,says McKeen.

“Not everybody is going to recover the same way. And some people with extreme trauma in their lives might need this pathway out of drug use by giving them safe pharmaceuticals along with other supports so they can reduce their use and eventually recover.”

For McKeen, the motion represented a “multifaceted” approach that includes lobbying the federal and provincial governments to make drug policy change. Designating the opioid crisis a national health emergency would bring more resources to municipalities like Edmonton to help combat overdoses.

The motion passed unanimously at executive committee and will be recommended to city council for ultimate approval on April 6. More than a dozen people spoke in favour of McKeen’s proposals.


During the committee meeting, several academics and people with lived experience spoke up in favour of McKeen’s motions.

Dr. Elaine Hyshka of the University of Alberta (U of A) School of Public Health told the committee that the rise of fentanyl in the illegal market propelled Alberta’s opioid death rates.

“Fentanyl and the fundamental transformation of the illegal market, that’s what took us from 100 deaths, around 100 deaths per year in Alberta to now over 1,200.”

Dr. Hakique Virnani, a preventative medicine specialist at the U of A, said the opioid crisis is no longer just a public health emergency.

“Four people died every single day in Alberta in December of last year, and that wasn’t even our worst month,” he said. “So this isn’t just a public health emergency, it’s one that’s getting worse, and I think the call to the federal government to recognize that officially is very well placed by this motion.”

He added how the opioid crisis is so deadly because it’s not just about overdoses but because people are getting unpredictable combinations of drugs being combined together.

For Hyshka, the key to alleviating some of the deaths in the crisis is getting people away from relying on the illegal market.

“Getting people out of the illegal market, helping them stabilize their substance use, if needed, connecting then to the housing and income, if needed connecting them to treatment, those are options for people.”


Dr. Peter Silverstone, a U of A psychopharmacology researchER, told council that the science is settled in this area.

“The science is clear, medically supervised pharmaceutical alternatives to illicit drugs are safe, effective, and should be supported.”

Dave Ward, executive director of Indigenous supportive and affordable housing facility Ambrose Place, told council that often harm-reduction strategies take a long time, but are successful in the long-term.

“When people suggest that programs like this don’t have a destination of abstinence, it might take longer for some people – it doesn’t just go from crisis to treatment and everything is great.

“This program and programs like it are critical.”

McKeen said encouraging decriminalization was something he was “leery” of at first but eventually realized was necessary.

“As I dug into it more and more, I came to understand that criminalization of personal drug use keeps people isolated which is a dangerous thing with street drugs and it adds to the shame and stigma around… what is an illness.”

While the motion got praise from the members of executive committee, McKeen knows it could be a tough sell to the general public.

“All I can ask of people is to pause, and open their hearts and minds to the possibility that some of the things that we were told growing up may not be completely true about the nature of addiction,” McKeen said.

He added that a lot of families in Alberta are touched by addiction who need help and these steps are a strong first step.

“In the shadows are a lot of people whose lives have been touched by addiction,” McKeen said.  

“I think we’re moving in the right direction. We’re getting’ there, but we have to get there quick because the cost is just way too high.”

With files from CTV New Edmonton's Jeremy Thompson