'They don't want to die': Families who lost loved ones to opioids say government must do more

Families who have lost loved ones to fentanyl and carfentanil overdoses are joining the NDP to demand a provincial plan to fight the rising use of opioids in Manitoba.

Dozen people sat in provincial legislature Thursday to join NDP in calling on PC government for strategy

Families who lost loved ones and the NDP called on the province to develop a strategy to fight opiates on Thursday. (Canadian Press)

It's been two years since Arlene Last-Kolb's son Jessie died of a fentanyl overdose, and she says Manitoba's opioid problem has only gotten worse since then.

On Thursday, Last-Kolb joined a dozen other people who have lost loved ones to fentanyl and carefentanil to demand the Manitoba government do more to fight the rise of opioids in the province.

They were there to support a new NDP private members' resolution demanding the Progressive Conservative government put together an anti-opioid strategy.

'We're losing children every week'

The resolution calls on the government to boost supports for people struggling with addictions and take action to halt the increasing number of opioid-related deaths.

The New Democrats are calling the rising numbers an "emergency," and said the government needs to do more.

Arlene Last-Kolb says the government needs to do more to protect kids like her son Jessie. (CBC)

Last-Kolb has spent the past two years fighting to bring awareness of the danger of opioids. For the past six months, she's worked alongside Christine Dobbs, who lost her son Adam to a fentanyl overdose in February.

On Thursday, the pair said they want the government to move quickly.

"We're losing children every week," Last-Kolb said.

"The longer that we take to debate this — you know, I've been doing this for two years. Chris has been doing this for six months.... We need to move quickly on this, because it concerns me that we're losing children every week, and I want people to know what I know."​

'They don't want to die'

According to the NDP resolution, 29 people died as a result of fentanyl use in Manitoba in 2015, compared to 75 deaths in the four years from 2009-13. The party attributed those numbers to media reports.

Officials in British Columbia and parts of Alberta have declared public states of emergency as a result of fentanyl use in those provinces.

Christine Dobbs said the rising use of opiates in Manitoba is a public health emergency. (CBC)

​Dobbs said she wants to see Manitoba take a similar stand.

"It's a public health emergency," she said.

Dobbs and Last-Kolb said they want the government to start by co-ordinating efforts by the Health, Justice and Education ministries to raise awareness starting at a young age, and assess current resources and waiting times for addictions services in Manitoba.

"We need to bring an awareness of drug addiction and the resources that lack in this city to help young people to battle the struggle that they have," Dobbs said. "They don't want to die."

Health minister says hold off

Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen called the wave of deaths from opioids a "national and a local crisis," but said he wanted to hold off on developing a plan.

"There has to be a strategy, but it has to be more than provincial," Goertzen said.

Goertzen told reporters Thursday individual province's efforts might not be effective because drug trafficking doesn't respect provincial boundaries.

"You can take efforts in one particular province, but if those efforts aren't duplicated or aren't as strong in other provinces, it won't have the effect that you'd want," he said.

Goertzen acknowledged the seriousness of the issue in the Legislature, admitting his own father died from complications related to alcohol addiction.

The health minister says the government is working to make naloxone more available to medical professional such as first responders. Goertzen also pledged to improve public awareness of the problem and review provincial programs for addiction.

Goertzen also said it's not his call to label the situation a public health emergency. That has to come from a recommendation from the Chief Medical Officer, he said, and that hasn't happened yet.

"I'm always interested in hearing from our medical officers if they feel that whether this or something else rises to the level of a public state of emergency, which of course would be quite rare," he said.

"I don't know that it would be wise to have politicians making those declarations. We really have to rely on medical officials for that."

A national meeting on the opioid crisis will be held on Nov. 18 in Ottawa, he said.

​He asked the House to wait on the NDP resolution for a provincial strategy until after the national meeting.

The resolution died before a vote could be taken.

With files from Sean Kavangh