Grande Prairie, Fort McMurray lead province in per-capita fentanyl deaths

The northern Alberta cities of Grande Prairie and Fort McMurray lead the province in fentanyl overdose deaths per capita, figures from Alberta Health reveal.

‘When they are selling fentanyl, they are murderers … It’s murder,' says mother of fentanyl overdose victim

Mari-Lee Paluszak speaks openly about her son, Todd Chambers, who died of a fentanyl overdose in Fort McMurray in October 2016. (David Thurton/ CBC)

The northern cities of Grande Prairie and Fort McMurray have the highest fentanyl overdose death rates in the province, figures from Alberta Health reveal.

Alberta Health released new statistics last week that show Grande Prairie and Fort McMurray had the highest rates of fentanyl overdose deaths per 100,000 persons within the first six months of 2017.

In the first half of the year, nine people died of fentanyl overdoses in Grande Prairie, compared to 10 deaths in all of 2016.

In Fort McMurray, eight people died of fentanyl overdoses in the first half of 2017, compared to nine the previous year.

Todd Chambers with his baby daughter. (David Thurton/ CBC)

Mari-Lee Paluszak isn't afraid to be counted as one of the mothers who lost a child to fentanyl in Fort McMurray.

Her son Todd Chambers, the father of a one-year-old girl, overdosed on the drug in October 2016.

Paluszak doesn't hide her contempt for traffickers who push the deadly street drug.

"When they are selling fentanyl, they are murderers," Paluszak said. "It's murder."

(Government of Alberta/ Report)

Fentanyl is the leading cause of opioid overdose deaths in Alberta. The drug killed 198 people in Alberta in the first six months of 2017, including 65 in Edmonton and 98 in Calgary. In 2016, 314 people in Alberta died from fentanyl.

For the first half of 2017, the rate of fentanyl-related deaths in Edmonton was 13.3 per 100,000, compared to 14.9 in Calgary and 19.9 in Fort McMurray.

Grande Prairie's fentanyl overdose death rate — 23.4 per 100,000 — was the highest of any Alberta city.

Both Grande Prairie and Fort McMurray have seen several large fentanyl busts recently. In June, the Grande Prairie RCMP issued a special warning after police and EMS responded to seven overdose calls in a single night.

'Crisis level'

The HIV North Society has been on the front lines of fighting fentanyl overdoses in Grande Prairie and Fort McMurray, calling the situation a crisis.

It has been handing out naloxone kits and working with the RCMP and other partner agencies to reduce deaths, executive director Melissa Byers said.

Fentanyl is the leading cause of opioid overdose deaths in Alberta. (CBC)

The group believes overdose death rates are highest in northern Alberta cities because Grande Prairie and Fort McMurray are boom towns that are  home to a lot of people with disposable income. They are also regional hubs for communities in their regions.

It's gotten to the point, Byers said, where it's not hard to find someone who has been affected by a fentanyl overdose.

"It's entering into different circles," Byers said. "And people are noticing and responding to overdoses on the street. It's definitely at a crisis level."

Not dying in vain

Days before Chambers's death, Paluszak sensed that her son, a regular heroin and cocaine abuser, would fall victim to the deadly drug.

"We pretty much suspected if something happened to him it would probably be a fentanyl overdose," Paluszak said. "A week before he died I said he is going to die."

He was found dead in a trailer at his work site.

A medical report nine months later confirmed fentanyl and an animal tranquilizer were found in his blood.

In his diary, Chambers had written about his struggles to stay off drugs.

"I am here for a greater purpose," he wrote. "I need to stay vigilant with my sobriety so one day I can be able to help save others."

His mother is now calling for the government to open safe drug-use sites where addicts can administer drugs under medical supervision, with easy access to naloxone.

It's something HIV North is also calling for.

"I think we need to start talking about drug use in a way the destigmatizes it so people are able to access that support," Byers said.

A diary entry from Todd Chambers said he hoped one day he would be able to overcome his addictions and help others struggling. (David Thurton/ CBC)

Paluszak also wants more mothers to go public about their grief and hopes to form a support group for them.

She said she doesn't want her son's death to be in vain and wants his struggles to be a stepping stone for others.

"I know if we had a support group here, that it would help so many others," she said. "Because there are people out there who are struggling. We just don't know who they are."

Follow David Thurton, CBC's Fort McMurray correspondent, on FacebookTwitter or contact him via email.