'The situation is only getting worse': Advocates renew calls for addictions support on International Overdose Awareness Day

1,681 wooden crosses were planted on the lawn of the Saskatchewan Legislative Building to mark International Overdose Awareness Day. (Stefanie Davis/CTV News)

The lawn of Saskatchewan’s Legislative Building was covered in 1,681 wooden crosses on Tuesday to represent all the lives lost from overdose in the province since 2010.

The display, commemorating International Overdose Awareness Day, was organized by Prairie Harm Reduction, Moms Stop the Harm and Regina Harm Reduction Coalition to bring the public a visual of how many lives have been impacted by overdoses.

“A lot of times people forgot or don’t realize the impact that this has on the community,” Jason Mercredi, the executive director of Prairie Harm Reduction, said. “For every cross that represents an individual, friends and family are impacted with each death and the situation is only getting worse.”

From January to August 3 of this year, the Saskatchewan Coroners Service reported 87 confirmed drug toxicity deaths and 134 suspected deaths, equaling 221 deaths so far.

Throughout 2020 there were a combined 337 overdose deaths.

PROVINCIAL SUPPORT

Prairie Harm Reduction and similar organizations receive some funding from the provincial government for programming, but not for the operation of its site, which provides a monitored place for drug consumption.

“[The province] recently started giving us drug checking equipment, that’s awesome. So you’re giving us the equipment to check the drugs, but you’re not giving us the staffing dollars so that we can operate the equipment or stay open with our consumption site?” Mercredi said. “I think they need to start taking this seriously and start funding the safe consumption site.”

He said the funding is needed in Regina as well, where overdose numbers are significantly higher.

On Tuesday, the provincial government announced a new overdose awareness campaign that will be rolling out primarily on social media platforms.

“We [are trying] to encourage more folks to talk about what it is that is happening in Saskatchewan,” Everett Hindley, the minister of mental health and addiction, told CTV News. “Any time there is a death of an overdose or a suspected overdose, it’s a tragedy, and it’s important to know that these are people we all know in our communities.”

Hindley said the province is consistently looking at how to spend its limited dollars to help programs, including Prairie Harm Reduction, in an effective way.

“[Prairie Harm Reduction] has requested broader funding from the Government of Saskatchewan, and I would say any proposal or request for additional funding is always considered as part of the annual budgeting process,” Hindley said.

Mercredi said Prairie Harm Reduction members continue to ask for more help.

“They know what we’re asking,” he said. “Their own internal documents show that they’d save the money and we’d save lives.”

The Saskatchewan NDP is also calling on more assistance from the province.

“We have never seen the situation so dire in Saskatchewan,” Meara Conway, the official critic for community based organizations, said. “We are calling on the Sask Party government to fund the initiatives that we know to work. We have internal government documents indicating the community-based safe consumption will save money and save lives.”

ENDING THE STIGMA

At the Mamaweyatitan Centre on Tuesday, community leaders and people with lived experience related to overdose gathered to share their stories.

One speaker was 40-year-old Tammie Huber, who has dealt with drug use for the majority of her life.

“I was first introduced [to drugs] when I was five years old by my father to cocaine,” Huber said. “I did drugs on my own, like marijuana was I was nine years old. By 16, I was doing pretty much any drug out there.”

She was able to get back on track. She became a home care aid and had two children.

“Then I fell off my path,” she said. “I’d been using crystal meth for over 18 years and fentanyl, heroine, crack cocaine and lots of other numerous amounts of drugs throughout my life.”

She said she was sent to prison after attempting suicide, and that’s when she turned her life around for good.

Huber said she believes if more programs, including safe consumption sites, had been around during her journey, it would have helped.

“There’s a lot of other things. We need people with harm reduction backpacks to go in the community, to hand out harm reduction without any bias or judgment,” she said.

Huber said she wanted to share her journey on Tuesday to end the stigma around drug use.

“I just want more people to understand without judgment,” she explained. “With COVID-19 and all our restrictions being put out, a lot of addicts have been falling off and our overdose numbers have been rising. I just wanted to share my story to give hope to people that if I can change, anybody can.”