Edmonton·RED DEER BUREAU

Central Alberta mother who lost son to overdose pleads for more recovery options

Last year, Wendy Little lost her 23-year-old son to a drug overdose. In her grief, she raised $10,000 for a Red Deer society that supports people struggling with addictions. Now, she says, the province needs to step up with more treatment options.

‘We're losing a whole generation of people’

Wearing a T-shirt in memory of her son Quinn, Wendy Little walks in downtown Red Deer, Alta., near the office of the Safe Harbour Society. (Heather Marcoux/CBC)

CBC Edmonton and CBC Calgary have teamed up to launch a pop-up Red Deer bureau to help us tell your stories from central Alberta. Reporter Heather Marcoux will bring you the news from Red Deer and the surrounding area. Story ideas and tips can be sent to heather.marcoux@cbc.ca.


By the time Wendy Little realized how badly addictions had ravaged her son's life, it was too late.

Last June, one of Little's three sons, 23-year-old Quinn Mason, died from an overdose. His mother said he had taken a combination of drugs including methamphetamine, fentanyl and cocaine.

Mason, a music-loving Albertan known as a small-town guy who made a big impact, died alone in a home in the small central Alberta village of Delburne, 45 kilometres east of Red Deer.

He lived next door to his mother's house with a roommate and his roommate's children. His roommate and the children were out for the morning when Mason overdosed. The last time anyone saw him alive, he was snoring in his sleep. 
Quinn Mason died after a drug overdose in June 2020. (Submitted by Wendy Little)

Mason loved live music and worked for a time in the entertainment scene. Shortly before his death, he had returned home to live with Little. It was then that she realized the gravity of his dependencies.

"He didn't live at home for quite a while. And then of course, in the pandemic, he came home and stayed with his dad for a while and then came to stay with me," Little said.

"And although I had kind of been worried that something was going on, I wasn't 100 per cent sure. But it became clear quickly that there was an issue." 

After Mason took his mother's car and crashed it, he moved out of her home and in with the next door neighbours.

Mason was one of more than 1,100 people who died in Alberta from drug overdoses — the list includes opioids, methamphetamine, cocaine, alcohol and benzodiazepines — in the first 11 months of 2020.

Information compiled for the province's substance use surveillance system shows 116 overdose deaths in the Central zone in the first 11 months of 2020, up from 72 in the zone in all of 2019.

In the city of Red Deer, there were 51 deaths in the first 11 months of 2020, and of the total, 44 involved opioids.

From January to November 2020, the drug-poisoning death rate in Red Deer was 50.3 per 100,000 people, the highest of any major city in Alberta.

For the same period, the rate was 40.3 in Edmonton and 31 in Calgary. The death rate in Lethbridge was 48.5 per 100,000 people. In Grande Prairie it was 43.4.

Fort McMurray's overdose death rate was 19.2 and in Medicine Hat it was 18.9 deaths per 100,000 persons per year.

'Nobody's immune'

Little is worried that the numbers will continue to climb in central Alberta, and that more mothers will lose their children in 2021 if more treatment options are not made available in Red Deer. 

"Nobody's immune," she says. "And it's stealing a generation of people. And the collective pain is rippling out across not only our cities and our rural communities, but our province in our country."

Sgt. Paul Glanville of the Red Deer RCMP knows many mothers like Little.

Like her, he wants people to understand that this isn't a downtown Red Deer problem. 

"Don't get caught up in the notion that it's just people that are downtown or homeless or having social issues [who are impacted]," Glanville said.

Glanville said that in February, Red Deer's crime reduction team and General Investigation Section seized more than two pounds of methamphetamine and about half a pound of fentanyl — seizures he calls significant. 

While police are working to intercept drugs coming into the community, Little would like to see a safe, medically supervised drug supply for those addicted to opioids, as well as more detoxification and treatment beds in the centre of the province. 

After her son died, Little raised $10,000 for Safe Harbour, which offers detox and housing support for people struggling with addiction. She hopes her efforts can save someone else's child. 

Little wants to see more support for people like her son in central Alberta. He died one month before the province announced a planned addictions treatment facility for Red Deer last July.

The Red Deer Recovery Centre was initially slated to open this spring but there have been delays.

Plans 'on track,' province says

But the plans to open the recovery community remain "on track," Kassandra Kitz, press secretary to Jason Luan, associate minister of mental health and addictions, said this week.

"Government departments are working diligently to ensure that the project moves forward smoothly," Kitz said in an emailed statement. "The pandemic has impacted these processes in ways that were unanticipated and thus we do expect some delays."

She said environmental impacts and site servicing need to be taken into consideration. "Regarding specific locations, we are unable to comment on matters that are competitive in nature."

Funding for the recovery centre was included as infrastructure spending as part of Alberta's Recovery Plan, announced last year. Operational funding is set aside in the provincial budget for when the facility is complete, Kitz said.

Little said Red Deer is overdue for more treatment options, especially for people addicted to opioids. She wants to see a safe supply of opioids for those who are addicted, and a quicker route to treatment for people who have detoxed and risk relapsing.

"It's time to use our voices and plead with our government to change policies and start looking at this in a non-judgmental, unbiased way," she said.

"Because we're losing a whole generation of people. And the collective pain that's building within our communities within our families is mind-boggling."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Heather Marcoux is a multi-platform journalist based in Red Deer, Alta. She worked in television newsrooms throughout the Prairie provinces before returning home to central Alberta.

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