Mayor Robertson gets emotional over opioid overdose crisis

Council debate brings tears, heated exchanges in politically charged battle

12th and Cambie

I’ve got to say that in my years of covering city hall, I’ve never seen Mayor Gregor Robertson cry.

He almost did Wednesday.

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He shifted in his chair in council chambers, made one of those faces people make before the tears roll, then paused mid-sentence.

“There’s a loss of hope…”

The mayor was referring to the drug overdose crisis and the mounting death toll. He had just heard from city staff that 216 people in Vancouver this year have died of a suspected overdose.

He also heard how city staff and doctors and non-profit organizations and volunteers and harm reduction advocacy groups were all in overdrive to reduce the death toll.

“It’s been just excruciating living through this, witnessing it and seeing the devastation in the community,” he said moments before he got emotional. “And it’s hard to believe it just keeps on going at the pace that it has, despite all the incredible work.”

I’ll pause here to allow all the Robertson haters to guffaw, scream, yell — whatever it is you do when you read something like this — and accuse him of putting on an act, playing to the cameras, etc.

And you might as well continue your hater thing for Vision Vancouver when I tell you that Coun. Andrea Reimer actually did cry in what was an emotionally charged afternoon; she’s been driven to tears a few times this term when on the topics of overdose deaths and social problems in this city.

For the record, I don’t recall Green Party Coun. Adriane Carr or the NPA trio of George Affleck, Elizabeth Ball and Melissa De Genova requiring any Kleenex during the debate, although Affleck got kinda loud.

More on this in a sec…

The minutes of the meeting won’t capture the drama, only that council unanimously approved 16 grants totalling $601,800 to nonprofits to help mitigate the effects of the overdose crisis.

The money will go to “anti-stigma programs,” expand outreach services in the Aboriginal community, provide peer support to reach drug users who use alone and offer services to areas of the city outside the Downtown Eastside.

The chunk of cash is the remainder of the $3.5 million council approved last December to respond to the opioid overdose crisis, with $1.9 million of that used to deploy a three-person medic team of firefighters.

So why so much drama if the vote was unanimous?

Well, there’s this thing called politics.

Wednesday’s meeting was essentially a continuation of a February battle that Ball quite accurately described as juvenile.

I won’t repeat what transpired back then but regular readers will recall it was the same meeting in which De Genova wondered out loud whether Reimer called her a murderer.

The frosty relationship between those two was on full display Wednesday, with Reimer at one point saying to De Genova that “as much as this feels like grade school, it’s not.”

The remark came after De Genova tattled on the mayor for saying off-mic that a passionate/angry/loud Affleck should be ashamed of himself for suggesting the one-week old NDP government could have already put up some money to battle the crisis.

Affleck said this while arguing for an amendment tabled by De Genova, who requested the mayor write a letter to the government demanding cash to tackle the crisis.

I should note that Vision Coun. Raymond Louie called De Genova’s request “absolutely asinine” — a comment that sparked more arguing, points of order and classy behaviour.

Louie later agreed, after a short recess called by Reimer to cool the political temperature in the room, that a letter be sent to Premier John Horgan and Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Darcy to match the $601,800 for the grants. He did that on the condition the NPA councillors vote for the grants.

At the root of this months-long back-and-forth is the NPA’s belief that the drug overdose crisis is a provincial and national issue that should be directly addressed by senior governments — and that the more Vancouver spends on tackling the crisis will simply let Horgan and Trudeau off the hook.

This is the point in my piece where NPA haters can guffaw, scream, yell — do whatever it is you do when you read something like this — and accuse Affleck and company of being tone deaf to the carnage in this city.

Watching all this fussing and fighting go down Wednesday were some of the city’s best minds on how to address the crisis, including Dr. Patricia Daly, Dr. Mark Tyndall, the city's Mary Clare Zak, Aboriginal leader Kevin Barlow, harm reduction activists such as Karen Ward and representatives from nonprofits, who implored council to approve the $601,800 in grants.

Which, after the better part of three hours, they did.

What was it like to be in the audience?

The mounting death toll tells me all the non-politicians in the room wish they had spent their time more valuably, perhaps back on the frontlines focused on saving a life or two.

mhowell@vancourier.com

@Howellings

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