'The system failed him': Inquest called into overdose death of Manitoba man who was turned away from detox facilities

Relief and hope—that is how Carol Packer felt after learning Thursday that Manitoba's Chief Medical Examiner is calling an inquest into the death of her younger brother, Lee Earnshaw.

"Relief that Lee's voice is going to be heard and hope that this initiates change," Packer told CTV News in an interview from her home in Alberta.

The 42-year-old husband, father, and former commercial fisherman was found unresponsive in his tent in Winnipeg. Despite resuscitation efforts, he died of a fentanyl and methamphetamine overdose on June 14, 2021.

"He was one of the most honest people I know, he didn't hide his problems with drugs, he was very honest with it," Packer said.

"I think Lee was so brave for speaking out about it—sharing his experiences. We had enormous respect for Lee. The system failed him."

In a release Thursday, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner said Earnshaw had tried multiple times in the months leading up to his death to get help through the Rapid Access to Addictions Medicine (RAAM) Clinic and Main Street Project.

However, each time he was turned away due to what the Chief Medical Examiner called "various technicalities."

Since Earnshaw's death, Packer has been working with St. Boniface Street Links to have an inquest called into her brother's death.

"You can't turn some away, someone away in, when they're facing a medical crisis. It's no different than walking into a hospital with a medical emergency. You wouldn't turn them away. We can't do that," she said.

Marion Willis, the founder and executive director of St. Boniface Street Links, said she is hopeful the inquest into Earnshaw's death will bring about change.

Willis previously told CTV News Earnshaw had tried to get admitted to a detox facility five times in the last year, including three times at a RAAM clinic.

"The RAAM clinics and all the people that are out there working with people struggling with addiction and mental health, they are doing the very best job they can. But it is a system without a plan," she said.

Willis said the province needs to create a strategy to address the drug crisis in Winnipeg and Manitoba, but first the province has to understand exactly where the gaps and deficiencies lie.

"This is not about blaming anybody. This is about trying to understand why there are so many deaths," she said.

"This can't continue. These are real people. These are families. There is just so much pain and suffering attached to this epidemic and we need to get a handle on it, and if it takes the inquest into Lee's death to do that, then Lee's death was not in vain."

In a statement to CTV News Sarah Guillemard, minister for Mental Health and Community Wellness, offered her condolences to Earnshaw's family.

She said the province has been working to create a five-year road map to improve mental health, addiction, wellness and recovery services in Manitoba, and plans to release more information about the plan soon.

"Though we have made progress toward access to RAAM clinics, we have much more work to do," Guillemard said.

The minister said work is being done to increase capacity to manage addictions-related issues within primary care, and expand access to withdrawal management and to specialized opiate agonist therapy services.

"We welcome any answers that come out of the inquest to assist our government in improving support for those in need.”

A spokesperson for Shared Health declined to comment, saying the matter is now before the courts.

Packer says she is now working to gather as much information as she can for the inquest into her brother's death—one she hopes will shine a light on the barriers he faced and will lead to change.