THUNDER BAY – Like a growing number of Thunder Bay residents, Brad King has been touched personally by Canada’s drug overdose epidemic.
A supervisor at Thunder Bay’s lone safe consumption site, PATH 525, King lost his sister-in-law four years ago.
Monday, which marked International Overdose Awareness Day, offered an opportunity for families like his to come together to honour loved ones lost to overdoses and push for change in the hopes of averting future tragedies.
“We’re using our grief and anger and trying to put it to good use and call for change in our community and across Canada,” he said.
“We’re letting people know it’s the drug war and our punitive drug policies that have led to our drug supply being in the hands of criminals, and thus being poisoned, leading to these deaths.”
A small group of community members, political leaders, and health professionals gathered Monday outside the Nor’West Community Health Centre on Simpson Street, handing out information, supplies, and snacks and commemorating those who have died.
City hall was also alight in purple to honour the occasion, while family members were invited to visit a memorial tree planed at the Kam River Park.
The issue has never been more pressing, with overdose deaths on the rise locally and across the country.
Data from Public Health Ontario shows more than 200 people died of opioid poisoning over the past decade in the Thunder Bay district. More than half of that toll came in just the last three years, 2017 to 2019.
Those grim statistics were represented visually at Monday’s event, with participants putting up a balloon for each life claimed.
COVID-19 has made an already bad situation worse, King reported, with border closures impacting the drug supply.
“The quality’s going down, the price is going up; people are having to do more to get less,” he said. “We’re hearing about benzodiazepine being put in opioids, so people aren’t responding to naloxone – that’s extremely concerning. Day to day, you never know what’s going to be in whatever batch.”
On a day that brought up heavy emotions for many, advocates pointed to bright spots in increasing acceptance of harm reduction approaches by decision-makers and the public.
“It’s a shame it had to get to this point for people to realize what an issue it is, and that it’s not just something that happens to other people,” King said. “But I see the conversation changing and people are more open to it, so that’s positive.”
Rising awareness has been slower to translate into increased action. PATH 525 remains the city’s lone safe consumption site, despite research indicating more are needed. Cynthia Olsen, drug strategy coordinator for the City of Thunder Bay, said a feasibility study had indicated at least two – one in the north end, and one in the south – would be required for the strategy to be effective in the city.
A provincial cap on the number of such sites allowed, instituted by the Ford government, made expansion more difficult.
“There is still a cap in Ontario, and that needs to be addressed to ensure communities like ours that could benefit from more than one [site] would be able to have them,” Olsen said.
MPP Judith Monteith-Farrell said the provincial cap flew in the face of evidence gathered by the province, including local submissions.
“I’d like them to use that research, the hard work of all those folks like the Thunder Bay Drug Strategy, who made recommendations to keep people alive.”
MP Patty Hajdu said all levels of government needed to work together on the issue to reduce stigma and provide supports to those struggling with addiction.
“We’ve had a long, sorry history in this country of stigmatizing people who use substances, which drives substance use underground,” she said. “It can create really risky situations for people who are struggling with substance use who are using alone, who are afraid to reach out for help, who are afraid to tell their family.”
“We can prevent overdoses, and when communities work together, we can save lives.”
Hajdu supports strategies like safe consumption sites, and welcomed local applications for regulatory approval to expand the number in Thunder Bay. She also touted some federal funding available for safe consumption and safe supply initiatives.
However, she warned there was no one easy solution to the crisis, citing housing and social supports as key pieces of any response.
On another called-for strategy, decriminalizing all drug possession, Hajdu indicated the federal government was examining a recent letter supporting the idea from the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, but wouldn’t comment on whether the government was ready to take the step.
In the meantime, the public prosecution service has ordered federal prosecutors to avoid pursuing simple possession charges in cases not involving major public safety concerns.