Federal Election: Why Aren't we Talking About the Opioid Epidemic?
The crisis kills 17 people a day but you won't hear about that on the campaign trail.
“The feelings are still pretty raw but I can say her name without…”
Isabelle Fortier's eyes welled. She took a moment to compose herself.
Her daughter, Sara-Jane, died of an opioid overdose two years ago. She was alone in her dorm room at the University of Ottawa when it happened.
“We used to say Sara-Jane wanted to defend the widow, the orphan, the cat, the dog, the river and the trees,” said Fortier. “She was an excellent little girl, an excellent woman. But she didn’t want us to think she was a bad person, so she hid her drug use.
“When you lose a child to the opioid crisis, it can be terribly isolating. We’re judged because our child used drugs. We must have been bad moms and bad dads. So you grieve alone, you grieve apart from the rest of your community.”
It was in the depth of that loneliness that Fortier learned about Moms Stop the Harm (MSTH), an advocacy group of thousands of families who’ve lost loved ones to an opioid overdose. When she joined, two years ago, there were roughly 1,500 families working to end the crisis. Now there are nearly 3,000 across Canada.
Fortier spoke at an event in St-Jérôme last Friday for International Overdose Awareness Day.
“Every week we welcome four, five, six, eight, sometimes 10 new parents. There’s always a story behind their loss, it hurts,” she said. “We always say, we’re a very exclusive club, we don’t want you to become a member, but we’re happy to have each other.”
In 2020, 547 Quebecers died of an opioid overdose, making it the worst year on record. Across the country, there were 6,214 deaths — just under 10 times the number of people who die by homicide in Canada each year.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated the overdose crisis. When the federal government was forced to close Canada’s borders in March of last year, it disrupted the supply of drugs being smuggled into the country. So the major distributors started cutting their smack, cocaine and MDMA with fentanyl — a synthetic opioid that’s 100 times stronger than heroin. Add to that a healthcare system that’s been pushed beyond the brink and it can feel like the nation has turned its back on families like Fortier’s.
An opioid epidemic killing thousands each year should be one of the most pressing issues in this federal election campaign. The New Democratic Party’s platform includes a plan to declare a national state of emergency to help fight the crisis and one to decriminalize simple drug possession.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, meanwhile, has promised to add 1,000 residential drug treatment beds across Canada if his party forms a government. In February, the Liberal government tabled a bill that would decriminalize some hard drugs but that died on the Order Paper when parliament was dissolved this month.
To O’Toole’s credit, accessing treatment is crucial. When Elo Boucher called a publicly-funded rehab clinic last month to help wean her friend off opioids, she was shocked at how little anyone seemed to care about him.
“We were told there’s an 18-month waiting list but that they would only save those who could be saved,” said Boucher, a street worker in St-Jérôme. “It was incredibly stigmatizing.”
Boucher is part of a new approach in the fight against opioid deaths. She is both an opioid user and someone whose job it is to help people get clean injection supplies, test their drugs for fentanyl and put people on a path to sobriety if that’s what they choose.
When she was at her lowest, eight years ago, she would inject 1.5 grams of heroin into her body every day, chasing the high with a hit of cocaine.
“It was an enormous amount of heroin,” Boucher said. “People will consume less than a half gram a day and you’ll see them sleeping everywhere. So I was at the end of my rope. And after sitting outside a rehab clinic for a few days, wondering whether I should go in or not, I decided to do it.
“They asked to see my arms to check if I was shooting up, to make sure I wasn’t lying about how bad the problem was. Then they told me it would be a year and a half before. I didn’t feel like a person, I felt like less than nothing at that point.”
In her desperation, Boucher began using her friends’ addresses to get on waiting lists at rehabilitation clinics across Quebec — in the Laurentides and Lanaudière regions north of Laval, in the city of Montreal and all the way onto its South Shore. Nearly two years later, a spot opened up in St-Hubert and she jumped on it.
Boucher still uses opioids though she’s down to just a few times a month. She manages to lead a productive life; she holds down a job, she’s active in her community and has a close relationship with her mother Christine, who joined her at the event in St-Jérôme last week.
The problem with O’Toole’s solution is that it presents the problem as a zero sum game. By focusing only on getting a few hundred people into rehab, you’re not helping the tens of thousands whose drugs are spiked with fentanyl.
“Anyone who knows about addiction will tell you that quitting can take years,” said Fortier. “Meanwhile, every time you’re using, it’s like playing Russian roulette. That’s what Sara-Jane’s father says. With all the fentanyl out there, we can’t wait for everyone to stop using drugs to save their lives. That will never happen.
“We need a clean drug supply, we need to decriminalize simple possession of drugs, we need to stop people dying every day.”
“While we wait, people die every day. Last week I lost four friends to overdose and this week it was two. We’re becoming numb to it.”
—Alexandra de Kiewit
In St-Jérôme — an industrial city 57 kilometres north of Montreal — one clinic is showing what can happen when a community takes a harm reduction approach. Le Dispensaire launched Quebec’s first drug screening program in 2017, it offers free treatment for Hepatitis and trains hundreds of local frontline workers to carry and use naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose.
“We even have drug dealers approach us to test their supply for fentanyl,” said Hugo Bissonnet, Le Dispensaire’s director. “We send thousands of drug testing kits across the Laurentian region and what we’re finding is that almost everything except for pot is laced with fentanyl.”
There’s evidence to suggest their approach is working. While Quebec saw a 30 per cent spike in fatal overdoses last year, the increase was just three per cent in the Laurentians. Fortier says replicating this model on a national scale won’t happen until the federal government declares a state of emergency over the opioid epidemic.
“The federal leaders need to wake up and see the crisis for what it is,” Fortier said. “It’s not by adding 1,000 beds that you’ll fix this. It’s a Band-Aid. Imagine if our solution to COVID-19 was to create more space in intensive care instead of vaccinating people? It wouldn’t fly.”
Mothers like Fortier have made some breakthroughs in Ottawa. MSTH has had statements read in the House of Commons and even managed to secure a meeting with Health Minister Patty Hajdu during the last session of Parliament.
“A few weeks ago the minister met with one of our moms and it brought her to tears,” said Fortier. “She’s made efforts but the whole party and the government needs to rally behind her. I think she has good intentions — she has a background in community work — but it isn’t enough.”
In hopes of making the crisis an election issue, MSTH sent out detailed questionnaires to the leaders of Canada’s major political parties. So far, only the Bloc Québécois has responded.
“While we wait, people die every day. Last week I lost four friends to overdose and this week it was two,” said Alexandra de Kiewit, an intervention worker and opioid user. “It’s become normal, it’s become almost banal, we’re becoming numb to it.
“Society was able to respond to an unprecedented health crisis with COVID-19. And that’s great. But what are we? Are we garbage?”
As Fortier took the stage last Friday, de Kiewit had to slip away so she could help a friend in crisis.
“It was too much for him, he had to use,” de Kiewit said. “So I went to check up on him, to make sure he wouldn’t OD. It’s an emotional day for most of us. Very triggering. Hard not to think about the people we’ve lost.”
The parents grieving their children will never be whole again. No amount of advocacy or prevention will ever bring them closure. But Fortier says that getting involved has helped her channel the pain.
“It’s a volunteer gig but it can feel like a fulltime job too,” said Fortier, who works as an osteopath. “My way of dealing with it was to dive into education. I went back to university and got a certificate in addiction treatment. It can be a lot for my family. At one point, they told me I needed to ease up because it was getting intense. I understand that but when you’ve lived through this, you don’t ever want anyone else to.”
As Fortier answered my questions last week, people lined up by a makeshift shrine where they wrote down the names of their departed loved ones.
“What I tell people is, ‘Yes, you don’t want to get into drugs. It’s dangerous. But if you do, we need to do everything we can to make sure you're safe,’” Fortier said. “Take a smaller dose, use it with a friend watching so they can intervene if you start to overdose, test your drugs. This is a sickness but it’s not a shameful thing.
“When my daughter died in her dorm, she was within walking distance of three supervised sites where she could use drugs in the presence of medical staff. It was that shame that kept her from doing that. She thought she was a bad person but she was an amazing person.”
This week’s piece was edited by
, a veteran of the Montreal Gazette with a flare for writing and a heart so big it could crush this town. She is a columnist at the
and likes to spend her time outdoors.