Sask. woman calls for more addictions supports after losing 2 family members to fentanyl
Fentanyl claimed lives of dozens in province last year
Laureen Pelletier-Wesaquate will sometimes think she has caught a glimpse of her son pedalling his bike in Regina and feels a surge of happiness. Then her stomach sinks and her heart breaks once again, as she realizes it was only her mind playing tricks.
Her son, Clinton Hotomanie Jr., died from a fentanyl overdose on Feb. 11, 2021.
"I think that's him, then I remember, he's gone."
Pelletier-Wesaquate's grief remains heavy. It's also complicated by further loss. As she was trying to process her son's death, she received a call from police. They said her oldest granddaughter Nikkia Sugar died on Feb. 15, 2021, just days before her 16th birthday — also from fentanyl.
"To find out they were gone, it was just really devastating," she said, speaking from her home at Piapot First Nation, Sask. "Losing children, especially to that terrible demon of fentanyl, is really hard."
Pelletier-Wesaquate is part of the growing group of Saskatchewan parents grieving because of fentanyl. At least 170 people died by accident from fentanyl and 135 from acetyl-fentany in 2021, according to the province's Coroners Service.
WATCH| Pelletier-Wesaquate lost her son and granddaughter to fentanyl within a week:
She never wants another parent to experience the pain she has gone through. She's leaned on prayer to work through this, but it's still hard for her not to become overwhelmed with raw emotion when she talks about it.
The hardest part is trying to console her late son's eight-year-old daughter, who she is raising.
"I feel so helpless when she cries for him," she said. "I tell her, her dad's gone to heaven. She says 'well, kokum how can I get to heaven? I want to go see my dad.'"
Addictions fuelled by trauma
Pelletier said she knows dozens of people affected by fentanyl as the drug spreads further through the province.
"A lot of them are lost because of broken homes," she said, adding it seems to be people trying to cope with past hardship who are turning to drugs.
"No one who's an addict wants to be an addict. It's not a life that someone chooses," Elizabeth Plishka said. Plishka is the director of support services at Prairie Harm Reduction, which operates the province's first supervised consumption site for people living with addictions in Saskatoon.
Plishka said their clients living with addiction are often dealing with other complications like intergenerational trauma, poverty or homelessness.
"It's a response to trauma and they're trying to numb that."
Pelletier-Wesaquate can trace the lines of trauma through generations of her family, from her dad who was shaped by abuse at residential school, to her late granddaughter who grew up in and out of the foster care system.
She also faced her own addictions in adulthood.
"I put [my children] through a lot because of my addictions. I wasn't a good parent and I didn't know how to be a good parent," she said. "I'm trying to change that with my granddaughter. I tell her I love her everyday. I encourage her."
Calls for change
Beyond breaking cycles within her own family, Pelletier-Wesaquate wants more done for people living with addictions in Saskatchewan. She wants to raise awareness about the dangers of fentanyl, but also about the need for more supports.
Pelletier-Wesaquate wants a supervised consumption site established in North Central Regina, so people living with addictions in the area can stay alive until they're ready to heal.
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There's one relatively new overdose prevention site operating close to downtown at the Newo Yotina Friendship Centre, which only recently secured enough money to expand its services to the weekends.
According to statistics from Regina police, about 65 per cent of the overdoses in 2021 occurred in the "central" part of the city. They documented 160 fatal drug overdoses in Regina last year (up from 21 deaths in 2019 and 111 in 2020). City police were aware of 1,800 overdoses in 2021 — several each day — but the police chief said the number is likely much higher as many non-fatal overdoses go unreported.
Pelletier-Wesaquate wonders if a supervised consumption site might have saved her son's life. She said his spirit seemed to slip away, masked by the addiction.
"Before the drugs took over he was always laughing," she said. "He was always happy and laughing around and teasing, and he loved his little girl so much."
She said a supervised consumption site could offer people like her son a safe place to go — not just to use drugs, but to access basic comforts like a hot cup of coffee or a supportive ear.
"They're stuck in this ugly world of fentanyl and they don't see no way out," she said. "They've been kicked around for so long because they do drugs and looked down upon."
Plishka said a key function of the supervised consumption site in Saskatoon is to build relationships and trust with the people who use it.
"Substance use can be a lifelong battle for some, and so we're able to support people long term in a non-judgmental way," they said. "When someone like us is able to say, 'we don't see your substance use as a moral issue,' then they're really able to open up."
Fatal overdoses preventable
The Saskatoon site has been used hundreds of times, but there has not been a single fatal overdose.
"Laced substances is a reality. But when people are educated, when they have access to services, when they have access to Naloxone, then every single overdose death is preventable," Plishka said.
Saskatchewan's overdose numbers have been trending up over the last several years, but 2021 was the worst on record by far. Preliminary data shows 442 people died from or are suspected to have died from overdose in 2021. The trend appears to be continuing, as 49 people are believed to have died by drugs in the first month of 2022.
Plishka said organizations like PHR are limited in their ability to help more people because they are under-funded in Saskatchewan.
"If we had sustainable, reliable funding and we only had to concentrate on service provision, then we would be able to do so much more."
Pelletier-Wesaquate believes that the kindness offered to people through harm-reduction-focused centres is critical in helping people who, like her son and granddaughter, are caught in a complicated web of trauma.
"Sometimes they need to see there is hope."