Advocates urge B.C. to withdraw proposed legislation targeting youth following an overdose

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Proposed changes to B.C.’s Mental Health Act that would create a new form of detention and involuntary health care for youth who have experienced an overdose must be scrapped, according to advocates. 

In an online press conference Tuesday morning (July 27) the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, Health Justice and BC Civil Liberties Association condemned Bill 22 and warned if pushed through, it would create more harm than good for youth amid the ongoing opioid crisis that has claimed thousands of lives. 

President of BC/Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors, Hawkfeather Peterson said pervasive stigma remains common for substance users. 

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“When I see the government backsliding into discriminatory policy such as this it really just feels like all the hard work we’ve done to affirm ourselves has been completely negated,” Peterson said. 

Based on a successful pilot program at BC Children’s Hospital, Bill 22 is currently on pause noted B.C. Minister of Addictions Judy Darcy who said government will “take this time to talk to more people about the work that we were already thinking about doing with our partners on safeguards in regulation to protect young people’s rights.” 

Whether it be trauma associated with family violence or being in care, instability within their life or dislocation from family, community and culture, youth have stated their main reason for using substances is to numb their emotional pain, said BC Representative for Children and Youth, Dr. Jennifer Charlesworth, who acknowledged the increasing toxicity of the province’s illicit drug supply. 

She said B.C. does not have a robust array of voluntary services and supports, and pointed to a report her office released in March that found there were no intensive community day treatment programs in the province and just six youth specific intensive care management programs in B.C. which did not apply to the Fraser or Northern regions. Charlesworth added there were seven residential detox programs in the province offering a total of 27 youth specific beds, six of which had wait lists. There are also wait lists as long as three months for five of the six publicly funded community residential treatment programs. 

Laura Johnson with Health Justice said a fundamental defect of B.C’s Mental Health Act is there no protections against restraints and being isolated, and that Bill 22 extends this “horrific regime” and does not protect youth from the prospect of being restrained while undergoing involuntary treatment. 

Speaking on behalf of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, Kukpi (chief) Judy Wilson of Neskonlith Indian Band said Bill 22 puts First Nations who have been working with the First Nations Health Authority to reform the health care for their people back many steps. 

“We need to put those wraparound supports and services and not cut them off from their family and community, not detain them and punish them. It’s a health need. It’s not a criminalization where because they’re on substances or they have a family breakdown or crisis or mental health that they’re incarcerated or put into a system that’s foreign to us,” Wilson said, noting resulting high incarceration, suicide and mortality rates. 

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