Manitoba·CBC Investigates

Better services might have prevented death of Brandon man seeking detox: Manitoba chief medical examiner

Manitoba's chief medical examiner says a Brandon man who died in 2021 might still be alive today if the city had better services for people struggling with addiction.

'Why is this taking so long?' asks mother grieving death of son who needed sobering centre

A portrait of a woman sitting down in a purple sweater, beside a framed photo of a teenage boy. The teenage boy is dressed in his graduation outfit and is wearing a bowtie.
Brenda Eamer is seeking accountability after her son Ryan Eamer, 46, was not assessed by a doctor when he went to the Brandon Regional Health Centre for help with alcohol addiction. He died the following day. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Manitoba's chief medical examiner says a Brandon man who died in 2021, a day after going to the hospital seeking help for his alcohol addiction, might still be alive today if the city had better services for people struggling with substance use.

Ryan Eamer, 46, died in February 2021, a day after he went to the Brandon emergency department. Nurses failed to have him assessed by a doctor and police were called to take him into custody, two reviews into his death found.

"The argument could be made that had he been admitted for detox, his death may have been avoided because he would have been in a different environment," said Chief Medical Examiner Dr. John Younes, who oversaw Eamer's autopsy.

"It comes down to access to treatment for addiction, both short term and long term … to me is the most important factor in this case."

A portrait of a man in a dark blue suit jacket behind a bookcase.
Dr. John Younes, Manitoba's chief medical examiner, said Ryan Eamer's death shows the urgent need for better access to addictions treatment. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Manitoba has seen new records for the number of deaths from illicit substances in each of the last two years. Data provided by Younes's office shows in 2021, there were more than 400 deaths related to drug use. 

"The drug-related deaths in this province have multiplied in the last couple of years. And the resources for short-term and long-term addiction treatment have not kept pace," he told CBC. 

CBC News reported last week on Eamer's death after his mother, Brenda Eamer, came forward to tell his story.

She told CBC News the day before her son died, he was turned away at the Brandon Regional Health Centre's emergency room because they said he was too intoxicated to be admitted to a detox bed. 

Now she is advocating for the service her son sorely needed — a sobering centre for Brandon, akin to the one at Winnipeg's Main Street Project.

"There is nowhere to sober up other than the police detention centre," Brenda said. "It is my hope to keep pushing this and pushing this and pushing this until it becomes reality."

Ryan Eamer, with his sister Melanie Corbey, at his birthday lunch in January 2021, just a few weeks before he died. (Submitted by Brenda Eamer)

Under Manitoba's Intoxicated Persons Detention Act, police are allowed to detain an intoxicated person if they are deemed a danger to themselves or others.

The Main Street Project's sobering centre — which the social services non-profit refers to as a protective care facility — offers an alternative for police who might otherwise put someone in a jail cell for the night.

Police — including cadets — can take intoxicated people to sober up at the 20-unit, locked facility, which is staffed with on-site paramedics.

Hundreds detained for intoxication yearly

Advocates, police and city officials also agree that a sobering centre is desperately needed in Brandon — a southwestern Manitoba city of more than 51,000 people.

"I would dare say we're called daily regarding the Intoxicated Persons Detention Act," with reports of people under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, said Brandon police Chief Wayne Balcaen.

On average, 339 people are sent to a jail cell in the city each year under the act, according to the Brandon Police Service — a number Balcaen hopes a sobering centre would decrease. 

"I truly believe that intoxicated people, if that is their only crime, shouldn't be in a police service [cell]."

A portrait of a man, wearing a police uniform including a hat, in front of a police station.
Brandon police Chief Wayne Balcaen says his officers pick up intoxicated people in Brandon nearly every day. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Nearly a year ago, Manitoba's Progressive Conservative government announced plans for a sobering centre in the province's second-largest city, but so far, it remains in the early planning stages. 

The only money allocated so far is $2 million, a pledge made in July 2021 by then-justice minister Cameron Friesen. How much it will cost and who will fund annual operations hasn't been determined.

CBC News reached out to Minister of Mental Health Sarah Guillemard, Health Minister Audrey Gordon and Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen for comment. None were available for an interview.

Asked at a Thursday press conference about when the sobering centre will open, Premier Heather Stefanson deferred to the justice minister.

Jon Lovlin, a press secretary speaking on behalf of the justice minister, wrote in a statement that it would be "premature to reassess funding to this project" as it is still in the planning stages. 

City officials say they are still figuring out what role police, and the provincial and federal governments, will play in establishing the sobering centre.

'They need to step up with money'

Kim Longstreet, a longtime advocate for access to addictions treatment in Brandon, says the process of opening a sobering centre is moving too slowly when the need is so great. 

A portrait of a woman with glasses in a grey shirt outside of a building in Brandon, Manitoba.
Kim Longstreet, who is a longtime advocate for better addiction services in Brandon, says the province is moving too slowly on a sobering centre. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

"The [provincial] government needs to step up. They need to step up with money. They need to step up with resources," she said. 

"But the community itself … should take ownership of the sobering centre and decide what it looks like."

Brenda Eamer says one of the main reasons she spoke out about her son's death was to spur action on a sobering centre.

"Why is this taking so long? Why does everything have to move at a snail's pace? It's not like we are reinventing the wheel," she said.

WATCH | Brenda Eamer on the death of her son Ryan:

Brenda Eamer's son Ryan died a day after being turned away from Brandon Hospital

3 months ago
Duration 10:39
Brenda Eamer believes if doctors would have examined her son he might still be here today. Ryan Eamer struggled with alcohol addiction when he went to the Brandon hospital emergency department last February. He died the next day.

The City of Brandon says it has hired the Canadian Mental Health Association to get the project underway. A document has been created outlining what needs to be done to bring the sobering centre to fruition.

The association says it will look at operating costs, where the sobering centre could be located and what services it will provide, Brandon city manager Ron Bowles told CBC News.

The location, and whether it is a new build or a repurposed building, will determine additional costs and timelines, he said. 

His hope is that a request for proposals for operations and facility construction will happen this fall and construction could begin in 2023. 

"We want to, by the end of the year … be able to say to our council, 'here's the plan, here's what Brandon wants,'" Bowles said. 

"We only have one chance of doing this, right? So let's make sure we do it right."

A portrait of a man staring, wearing a blue shirt.
Jeff Fawcett, a Brandon city councillor and mayoral candidate, says all of council agrees the sobering centre needs to be a priority. (Jaison Empson/CBC )

Jeff Fawcett, a current Brandon city councillor and a mayoral candidate in this fall's civic election, says he knew Ryan Eamer and calls what happened to him "absolutely tragic." Fawcett also said he has a family member struggling with addictions.

Council needs to make sure the province knows the sobering centre is a priority, he said.

"I wouldn't say we're at mercy to the province, but we do have to make sure that we're making noise.… Some things maybe we do need to push with more urgency than other things, and this would be one," he said.

"Brandon needs a sobering centre simply out of necessity right now, and we could have probably used one a long time ago."

Better services might have prevented death of Brandon man seeking detox: Manitoba chief medical examiner

3 months ago
Duration 3:08
Manitoba's chief medical examiner says a Brandon man who died in 2021, a day after going to the hospital seeking help for his alcohol addiction, might still be alive today if the city had better services for people struggling with substance use.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kristin Annable is a member of CBC's investigative unit based in Winnipeg. She can be reached at kristin.annable@cbc.ca

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