HAMILTON -- Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told an Ontario city hard-hit by the national opioid crisis that situations like theirs were a top priority for his government, as a municipal official called for more concrete steps to address the root causes of addiction.
New figures show the city of Hamilton saw 70 opioid-related deaths between January and October last year, with an additional five deaths classified as "probable" opioid-related fatalities. That compared to 41 confirmed opioid-related deaths for the same period in 2016.
The city said its opioid-death rate for last year's period was 78 per cent higher than the provincial rate. In 2016, it said its rate was 48 per cent higher than Ontario's.
Trudeau, who was in Hamilton Tuesday as part of a tour through some of Canada's major steel-producing communities, said the government is taking action to try and curb the deadly trend.
"We know that we have to address this. This is getting to be more and more of a problem," he said after a tour of a steel plant in the city. "We have always put this at the top of our preoccupations as we deal with this public health crisis here in Hamilton and right across the country."
Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, medical officer of health for Hamilton, said Ottawa has already made many commendable moves to help curb overdose death rates that are surging across the country, but urged the government to look at the factors that lead to addiction in the first place.
The recently released federal budget earmarked $231.4 million to tackle the problem across the country, with a large chunk dedicated to measures such as public health campaigns, data tracking and border security measures.
Richardson said all those measures are necessary, but urged the government to look deeper.
"There needs to be continued focus on what do we do to stop people from being in a position where they are finding drugs as a way of managing their physical and emotional pain," Richardson said. "We do need that fundamental support from the get-go ... around housing, around income support, around civil society that are really important pieces to underpin it all."
Richardson said she could not account for the specific reasons behind Hamilton's unusually high opioid-related death rate, which she acknowledged was among the highest in the province.
Last week the Ontario government reported 1,053 opioid-related deaths across the province from January to October 2017, compared to the 694 deaths recorded during the same time period the year before.
Of the millions set aside in the federal budget, Ottawa has designated $150 million as emergency funding to be dispersed across all provinces and territories.
The balance will go toward public education campaigns, better access to public health data and new equipment and tools to allow border agents to better detect dangerous opioids like fentanyl before they enter the country.
The Ontario government has pledged to spend more than $222 million over three years to tackle the issue, with money earmarked to expand harm reduction services and hire more frontline staff. The province also said it has approved funding for seven supervised injection sites.
Last week it also announced that naloxone nasal spray will be available in Ontario pharmacies by the end of the month at no charge, in addition to existing naloxone kits that include an injectable version of the drug meant as an emergency treatment for opioid overdoses.
The Public Health Agency of Canada has projected opioids will claim more than 4,000 lives this year.