'We're mourning their loss:' Red Deer plagued by highest rate of fentanyl deaths in Alberta

As Red Deer continues to fight a growing addictions problem, new numbers show the Alberta city continues to have the highest fentanyl overdose death rates in the province.

Report shows fentanyl-related fatalities doubled in Red Deer between 2017 and 2018

Close up of hands placing metal spring in tin foil while holding lighter, in preparation for smoking fentanyl. (Elizabeth Withey/CBC)

As Red Deer continues to fight a growing addictions problem, new numbers show the Alberta city continues to have the highest fentanyl overdose death rates in the province.

Alberta Health's latest opioid surveillance report reveals fentanyl killed 591 Albertans in 2018.

And while Calgary and Edmonton have the highest number of fentanyl overdose fatalities, when adjusted for population, Red Deer has by far the highest rate of fentanyl related deaths.

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The number of Red Deer deaths jumped from 23 to 47 and, when you factor in population, the rate doubled from 21.4 to 43.8 (per 100,000) last year.

"All these numbers have a life story attached to them," said Stacey Carmichael, executive director of Turning Point Society, a harm reduction agency in Red Deer.

"Lots of them we knew and we're mourning their loss, just like their families."

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Safe consumption in the works

Stacey Carmichael, executive director of Turning Point, helps run a temporary overdose prevention site in a trailer. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

In order to deal with the crisis, Turning Point received special permission from the province to open a temporary overdose prevention trailer in October 2018 while it waited for the city to sign off on a larger, permanent safe consumption site.

That approval came in January — after months of delays — and now Carmichael is working on a Health Canada application for the permanent site.

"[The deaths are] tragic and preventable and there's a whole lot of work that we need to continue to do."

According to Carmichael, the new facility — located just outside of the downtown core — will be able to help more people and will allow for the inhalation in addition to other ways of ingesting drugs, such as injection.

"I want to help our community reduce the number of ER visits and reduce the number of hospital stays. And I want to see the crime rates continue to go down. And I want to see the people that we care about stay alive."

Carmichael is hoping to get approval from Health Canada and open the permanent site before the end of 2019.

"There's a great need," said Jennifer Cross, manager for the medically supported detox program at Safe Harbour Society in Red Deer.

"I think the sooner that this can get in place the better."

Safe Harbour has a 24-hour winter warming centre and many of its clients use the temporary overdose prevention site, which sits in the agency's parking lot.

"It's a very needed program. We're very happy they have a permanent site, especially because they will be offering more of the wrap around services like addictions counselling and assistance with income, assistance with housing."

Mayor calls for treatment facility

Mayor Tara Veer says there is no residential addictions treatment facility in Red Deer, and that's a problem. (247RedDeer/YouTube)

Red Deer's Mayor Tara Veer has been worried about her city's drug problem for years.

"It certainly is deeply concerning," she said.

"It's unacceptable for our community and it's ... tragic for the family and friends who have lost loved ones."

Part of the problem, according to Veer, is that the city has no residential addictions treatment facility. 

Red Deer council has been calling on the province to build one for about five years, but so far their calls have gone unanswered.

Veer says when council met with the provincial health minister in September, members were told a treatment centre was not being considered.

"The province to date has said that they're not exploring treatment for Red Deer. We strongly dispute that fact. And certainly the numbers speak for themselves," she said.

"In order for us to get ahead of the curve we absolutely need addictions treatment in Red Deer and region."


Jennifer Lee


Jennifer Lee is a CBC News reporter based in Calgary. She worked at CBC Toronto, Saskatoon and Regina before landing in Calgary in 2002. If you have a health or human interest story to share, let her know.