Overdose deaths continue to climb in Manitoba, renewing calls for government action

New data is showing signs of a surge in drug overdose deaths in Manitoba and renewing calls for action by the provincial government.

259 people died in first 9 months of 2020, 35% more than in all of 2019

Dozens of black balloons and photos were tied to trees along Churchill Drive in Winnipeg's Lord Roberts neighbourhood to raise awareness about lives lost to drug overdoses in Manitoba in 2020. Phoebe Wilson, 31, died in July 2020. (John Einarson/CBC)

New data is showing signs of a steady rise in drug overdose deaths in Manitoba and renewing calls for action by the provincial government.

Between January and September 2020, 259 people died from overdoses in the province, which exceeds the number of drug-related deaths in all of 2019 by 35 per cent, according to the latest figures from province's chief medical examiner.

The number of lives lost to drug overdoses is only slated to climb as the data for the last three months of 2020 is not yet available.

It's a tragedy that has rocked Janis Gillam's family twice in recent months.

"They have got to do something," she said, upon learning of the overall numbers in the province.

Janis Gillam is speaking out after losing her daughter and stepson to drug overdoses months apart in 2020. (John Einarson/CBC)

On a Sunday afternoon in late July, police officers arrived in her Winnipeg yard to the deliver the news: her daughter Phoebe had succumbed to a fentanyl-related overdose. She was 31.

"She was the most fun, spontaneous, happy, giving, loyal-to-a-fault amazing daughter and friend," Gillam said, adding Phoebe was a loving sister and mother of two.

She fought a long battle with anxiety and addiction, her mother said. Her substance use began with alcohol and escalated to opioids following a prescription for a back injury.

Gillam said her daughter sought treatment several times over the years, including just before she died.

"She was scheduled to go into treatment on Monday or Tuesday and she passed on the Sunday," she said, adding people who want treatment cannot afford to wait.

Phoebe Wilson, 31, was a daughter, sister and mother of two. Her family remembers her as loyal, fun, and kind. (Submitted by Janis Gillam)

Since her daughter's death on July 26, Gillam said the grief continues to come in waves.

"It's like a kick in the stomach," she said. "You'll be good for two days and then you smell something, you look at sprinkles, because she liked sprinkles on the Rice Krispie cake, and it starts the whole grieving process again."

Then in December, her family lost another adult child to drug poisoning.

Two-thirds of overdose deaths linked to opioids

Gillam's stepson Chris, a proud father and welder, died of a fentanyl-related overdose in British Columbia at the age of 37.

"We lost two brilliant, kind [children] — you would have loved them both," she said, adding Chris was artistic and had a great sense of humour.

Chris Read, 37, was a proud father and welder. His family described him as artistic and with a great sense of humour. (Submitted by Janis Gillam)

According to provincial data, two-thirds of fatal overdoses over the first nine months of 2020 were linked to opioids, including an increase in fentanyl-related fatalities.

There were 104 fatal fentanyl poisonings between January and September, compared to 41 fentanyl-related deaths in all of 2019.

'We are in an overdose crisis'

Manitoba, like the rest of Canada, has been in the throes of a drug poisoning crisis for years, but experts say the pandemic has compounded the situation.

The executive director of the Manitoba Harm Reduction Network said while it is no surprise to see an increase in the number of people dying from drug overdoses, the rate is concerning.

"We want the public to know that we are in an overdose crisis," Shohan Illsley said. "Our numbers are very high."

Border closures have caused a disruption in the drug supply, so some people have turned to other substances they may not be used to using, which can increase harm, she said.

An unreliable drug supply, coupled with isolation and reduced access to services and social supports due to pandemic restrictions, has increased the vulnerability of people who use substances, Illsley said.

Calls for decriminalization, safe supply

She says the rise in fatalities highlights the need for the decriminalization of substances.

"We know that as long as substances are criminalized then we're going to get folks not necessarily looking for support," she said.

Safe consumption services, easier access to naloxone and a safe supply of substances, as in British Columbia, also need to be pursued, Illsley said.

She would also like to see a more timely release of the data on drug overdose deaths instead of information months later.

"Let's be courageous, let's catch up with other parts of this country," she said. "Let's collectively work together with people who use substances to identify what they need in order to end this overdose crisis."

Arlene Last-Kolb, co-founder of Overdose Awareness Manitoba, agrees.

She has been advocating for increased supports, including long-term treatment and harm reduction, since her 24-year-old son, Jessie, died from fentanyl poisoning in 2014.

Last-Kolb is frustrated by the lack of progress and continued loss of life, she said.

"I've been through three ministers of health. How many times do we have to sit and tell our stories?" she said. "I would really like to see the shift in us talking common sense about harm reduction in this province."

Province responds

In a statement, a spokesperson for Manitoba's minister of mental health, wellness and recovery told CBC the government commissioned the Virgo report in 2018 in response to the ongoing drug and mental health crisis, and is working on implementing all recommendations.

The province has spent $50 million on 28 different projects to improve mental health and addictions services, the spokesperson said.

"Our government is focused on policies and programs that aid in the long-term recovery of Manitobans who are struggling with addiction, and we follow evidence informed continuum harm reduction prevention and treatment," the spokesperson said in response to the calls for safe consumption services, safe supply and decriminalization.

The province is looking at how other provinces use toxicology results to provide faster information on overdose deaths.

"Manitoba is considering their approach but has not finalized a plan," the statement says.

"Manitoba will be working with stakeholders, such as Winnipeg fire and paramedics, to increase the frequency of data sharing. In this way, we can increase our reporting to monthly as opposed to quarterly."

On Saturday, Overdose Awareness Manitoba plans to light 259 candles on the steps of the Manitoba legislature in memory of the lives lost in the first nine months of 2020.

"We need to make some really big changes and we need to make them now," Last-Kolb said.

Gillam agrees. It may not help her family, but she knows it could save someone else's loved one.

Families speak out as overdose deaths in Manitoba continue to climb

3 years ago
Duration 2:55
Featured VideoManitoba is seeing a steady rise in the number drug-related deaths, according to the latest data from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. And one Winnipeg family is adding their voice to the calls for action from the provincial government, to address the drug crisis.