Manitoba

Sister hopes inquest into death of Winnipeg man turned away from addictions clinic, shelter will spur change

An inquest has been called into the death of a man who was found unresponsive last spring in Winnipeg after consuming a street drug. Lee Earnshaw, 42, told CBC News just a month earlier that he was trying to get help for his addiction.

Lee Earnshaw, 42, was found dead in tent last June after taking toxic mix of fentanyl, methamphetamine

A photo of a man in many layers of clothes and a hood over his head, sitting on an older looking mattress.
Lee Earnshaw spoke to CBC in May 2021, a month before his death, about his struggles to get into a detox centre. (Jill Coubrough/CBC)

The sister of a man who died last spring in Winnipeg after consuming a street drug says she's thankful to see an inquest called into her brother's death.

Lee Earnshaw, 42, was found unresponsive inside his tent, set up along the banks of the Seine River, in June 2021. He had taken a toxic mix of fentanyl and methamphetamine, called gold down, according to a Thursday news release from the office of Manitoba's chief medical examiner.

Just a month before he died, Earnshaw told CBC News that he was trying to get help for his addiction.

Following his death, Earnshaw's sister Carol Packer and the St. Boniface Street Links outreach group sent a letter to the chief medical examiner Dr. John K. Younes, calling for an inquest.

When reached at her home in Alberta on Thursday, Packer said she is "thankful that the message got across" and hopes it can initiate policy change to make it easier for people with addictions to access help when they request it.

"When someone's ready, treatment needs to be available quickly and they can't be turned away. It can't happen anymore. It just can't happen anymore," she said.

"I don't want any more families to have to read about [drug overdoses of loved ones] and nothing is changing. The health system needs to offer different options and treatments to address people who are living this and to prevent overdoses."

Younes called for the inquest to determine all the circumstances surrounding Earnshaw's death in order to prevent similar deaths in the future, Thursday's news release said.

In the months leading up to his death, Earnshaw had made repeated attempts to access help through a provincial rapid access to addictions medicine (RAAM) clinic but was turned away each time due to various technicalities, according to the release from Younes's office.

Earnshaw had also tried get help at Main Street Project, one of Winnipeg's largest homeless shelters and home to a detox program, but was also turned away, the release stated.

Attempts were made to resuscitate Earnshaw when he was found inside his tent and again at a hospital, including through administering Narcan, but nothing was successful.

The manner of death has officially been deemed as accidental.

The month before his death, Earnshaw — a father and former commercial fisherman — was featured in a CBC News story about a lack of detox and treatment beds in the city and the resultant longer waits for help.

At the time, he talked about how he had tried to access the RAAM clinic, but even with the aid of outreach workers from St. Boniface Street Links he wasn't able to get in.

"There was some issue — I had used [drugs] within 24 hours or something," he said at the time. "It's kind of disappointing because you psych yourself up, you're ready to go."

On another occasion, the clinic had reached its capacity for appointments, according to the Street Links outreach team.

Earnshaw said he planned to keep trying and that he wanted to get into a detox centre.

Packer said he was exceptionally kind and thoughtful, and "the epitome of what you would want in a little brother."

"We were very lucky to have him in our lives for the time that we did," she said, noting the family was originally from Winnipeg but moved out to British Columbia, where Earnshaw first struggled with drugs.

He had gone into treatment and was clean when he moved back to Winnipeg in 2017, but had a relapse.

Though she advocated for the inquest, Packer gives full credit to her brother for pushing the issue into the light.

"I think none of this would have happened had Lee not had the courage to speak out about it in the first place … so that people could hear from his voice, from people who are actually living the experience," she said.

"There are people … who are ready to get treatment, and they're being turned away. You have to think of it as a medical emergency," said Packer.

"If people could shift their way of thinking, you would never turn somebody away who was in distress and needed help. But in these circumstances, that's what's happening."

The date, time and location of the inquest will be determined by the chief judge of Manitoba's provincial court and released at a later date, Thursday's news release said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.

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