Record number of Sask. people died from drug toxicity in 2021

The number of Saskatchewan people suspected to have died from drug toxicity in 2021 is more than double the number from two years prior. Community members are feeling a great sense of loss and say more needs to be done.

Community members feeling immense loss as OD numbers grow

Dozens of crosses lined the front lawn of the Saskatchewan legislature building in 2021 as advocates called for government to act on the addictions crisis. New data shows more than 400 people are believed to have died from drugs in 2021. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

The number of Saskatchewan people suspected to have died from drug toxicity in 2021 is more than double the number from two years prior.

There are 464 people confirmed or suspected to have died last year, according to the Saskatchewan Coroners Service.

Hannah Schneider cried when she saw the statistics. She knows that each number tallied up on the spreadsheet represents a person lost and others left to mourn. 

She remembers autumn in Regina, when there was a bad batch of drugs going around. 

"I kept getting messages. 'Hey did you hear so and so passed. Hey did you hear so and so passed. It was just like hit after hit after hit after hit,'" said Schneider, who created a Saskatchewan Overdose Awareness Group. "When does it stop? It's just so painful to hear [about] so many people."

Schneider and other advocates want more to be done to address the overdose crisis in Sask. 

For 2021, 225 deaths are confirmed while the rest remain under investigation. That means the number could change, but the preliminary data still shows a likely significant jump from years prior. In 2020, there were 327 people suspected to have died by overdose and in 2019 there were 179 confirmed. 

Schneider remembers a close friend who died in March 2019. He had been working on his own recovery and the loss affected her deeply. 

"It was very unexpected.… I had no idea he was getting back into the hard stuff," she said, adding he had also played a big role in her own addictions recovery journey.

His memory moved her to host a ribbon memorial event in his memory on International Overdose Awareness Day. Since then, she's learned the stories of dozens of community members who have died from drug overdose as people reach out, wanting to remember them. 

"A good handful of these people who've passed have tried to find help," she said. "These people are basically getting lost in the process." 

Hannah Schneider said more needs to be done supporting people in Saskatchewan who are living with addiction. She said 'we can't save an addict who's dead. We can't get them into recovery if they're not alive.' (Submitted by Hannah Schneider)

'One time and you're dead'

Chantel Huel said it seems like there has been an endless stream of "rest in peace" tributes on social media in the last two years for people who died because of toxic drugs.

"It became a daily thing. It became normal in my life," said Huel, who lives in Saskatoon. "Fentanyl has taken the lives of so many beautiful people." 

Most of the confirmed deaths in 2021 have been linked to fentanyl. Huel has lived through her own addiction to opioids, and spent time in and out of custody because of it. She's since marked 39 months sober. 

Several people close to her have died, including her daughter's partner — the father of her grandchildren, who died in October from fentanyl. He would have turned 32 on Tuesday. 

"The drugs aren't the same as they were two years ago. They've changed and it takes one time and you're dead." 

Calls for more supports and services

Huel said there are not enough mental health and addictions services in the community. She said addiction can affect anyone, and that the catalyst for it could be something as innocent as a doctor's prescription. However, she noted there are often underlying factors. 

"We need wrap around [supports] and to understand that addiction stems from trauma. It's a direct result from unresolved trauma. Homelessness. Addiction. Trauma. Being hungry," she said. 

Chantel Huel personally lived through years of addiction. Now she's in recovery and has become outspoken about the dangers of substances like fentanyl, motivated by her own experience and the people close to her who she has lost to the drug. (Submitted by Chantel Huel)

Schneider agreed.

 "The biggest thing that I would advocate and fight for is a 24-7 safe injection [site]," she said. "When people are feeling like they need to use, they know that there's somewhere safe that they can go." 

She noted Prairie Harm Reduction in Saskatoon and the overdose prevention site at the Nēwo Yōtina Friendship Centre in Regina are both operating, but neither have stable, long-term funding from the province. 

"The government really needs to find it in themselves to put the money forward to help keep those places open," she said. "We can't save an addict who's dead. We can't get them into recovery if they're not alive."

Both women also want Saskatchewan people to shift their perception on people who use drugs. They say there's still a lingering stigma that's impeding better support for people living with addiction. 

Schneider said people must realize that addiction is "not a moral failing."