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Conservative cuts to RCMP and border security helped lead to opioid crisis: Bill Blair

Liberal government will consider request by chiefs of police to decriminalize hard drugs, says former Toronto top cop and current cabinet minister, Bill Blair
20210916 Terry Sheehan Bill Blair Algoma Steel KA 04
Bill Blair, Liberal candidate for Scarborough Southwest, seen during a press conference at Algoma Steel on Thursday. Blair says cuts to the RCMP and border services by the previous Conservative government led to more opioids and other drugs getting to the streets. Kenneth Armstrong/SooToday file photo

Canada’s Public Safety minister says a re-elected Liberal government will look at a recommendation by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police to decriminalize simple possession of hard drugs.

Bill Blair is the Liberal candidate for Scarborough Southwest and minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness. He was in the Sault on Thursday to support local candidate Terry Sheehan in advance of Monday’s federal election.

SooToday asked Blair about promises by the Conservative Party of Canada to hire more police officers and border services agents to tackle the drugs that are in the country and those that are coming to Canada illegally. 

According to its platform, an elected Conservative government would hire 200 additional RCMP officers to combat drug trafficking and organized crime.

Blair said he was still working as police chief in Toronto 10 years ago when a number of cuts to law enforcement agencies and border services were brought in by the Conservative government of the day.

He said those cuts led to job losses in the RCMP and Canadian Border Services Agency and Blair suggests they may have led, in part, to the opioids getting on the street in the first place. 

“We saw the impact of those cuts. They were devastating to our efforts to keep this country safe,” said Blair.

Blair said a promise to hire more officers by the Conservatives and leader Erin O’Toole is an empty one. O'Toole served as a backbench Conservative MP when he was first elected in 2012 before taking on the role of Veteran's Affairs minister in 2015.

“This is the same guy that cut 700 officers when they were in government and when we said we would bring those officers back, he voted against it,” said Blair.

That belt-tightening by the Conservative government at the time also led to the closure of some Veterans Affairs offices and Coast Guard stations across Canada.

In 2014, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) criticized the Conservative government of the day for a number of cuts that affected Sault Ste. Marie, including Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Parks Canada, Service Canada and Natural Resources Canada. Nationally, it said jobs were also affected in border security, Canada Revenue Agency and others.

The Liberal government has worked to reverse those cuts, said Blair, in part by a five-year, $327-million investment in 2017 by his predecessor Ralph Goodale in anti-gang initiatives and a crackdown on gun crime.

“That was money for municipal and Indigenous police services here in the Sault and in every city and town right across Canada. $65 million just right here in Ontario,” said Blair.

That investment will help police departments in fighting those who import and sell opioids, he said.

SooToday asked Blair about a recommendation made earlier this year by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police to decriminalize simple possession of hard drugs.

That organization said efforts should be focused on enforcement against drug trafficking and production and invest in a public health approach to treating those living with addictions.

“They know that the people who bring these poisons into this country — the precursor chemicals used in the manufacture or the direct importation of fentanyl — they are killing people. They are poisoning people." Blair said the police want the tools to deal effectively with those serious criminals. 

“At the same time they are asking for tools to more effectively deal with people who are just simply victims of addiction,” he said.

The local Liberal, NDP and Conservative candidates have all agreed possession of opioids and their use should be dealt with from a health care perspective, not as a criminal issue. Local Conservative candidate Sonny Spina said the opioid crisis has only gotten worse in the six years since the Liberals took power in 2015.

Unlike the NDP, the Liberal platform is not promising to decriminalize simple possession, but Blair said his government is willing to listen.

“The police, it’s their job to preserve life, to save lives and keep people safe and they have said just using the criminal sanction for simple possession of drugs isn’t working, there should be a public health approach,” he said. “It’s so important when the police step forward and say this is the right thing to do and I will tell you my government is absolutely committed to listening to them and working with them.”