Public perception shifting as Sask. overdoses numbers climb in 2021: Prairie Harm Reduction executive director

Jason Mercredi says 2021 has been a particularly tough year for Saskatchewan in terms of overdoses and overdose-related deaths, however he's seen the public perception around harm reduction change and support for Prairie Harm Reduction reached new highs this year.

2021 saw highest number of fundraisers hosted by business for centre, resulting in more jobs, engagement

Jason Mercredi, Prairie Harm Reduction's executive director, said a growth in support from the private sector and more public support through 2021 shows stigmas are breaking around harm reduction in Saskatchewan. (Kendall Latimer/CBC)

COVID-19's impact has without a doubt been felt in Saskatchewan, but the province's opioid epidemic raged on through 2021 as well.

Data provided by the coroner's service on Dec. 2 showed roughly 400 deaths in Saskatchewan were being investigated as related to drug overdoses. Of those, 211 are confirmed fatal overdoses.

Few in the province know the drug crisis in Saskatchewan better than Saskatoon's Jason Mercredi, Prairie Harm Reduction's executive director.

"I don't know how much better off we are when we're looking at last year to this year; there are some good indications. The overdoses that happened in Saskatoon are about half that than happened in Regina," Mercredi said.

"You don't want to celebrate too much because you still have a record number of people dying."

He said the reduction in deaths in Saskatoon could be tied to the overdose prevention site that's run through Prairie Harm Reduction in that city. 

The community, he said, has embraced harm reduction and he said he's seen support from the public "explode" over the last year, while stigma around harm reduction has started to decline in the province.

The business community embraced the site too — he said some 75 different fundraisers were hosted by the private sector in the Bridge City in 2021 — making Prairie Harm Reduction feel like a valuable member of Saskatoon.

Those fundraisers, he said, allowed for Prairie Harm Reduction to hire more people with lived experiences, expand its hours and engage more than ever with Saskatoon through needle and garbage pickups.

Through the last year more people are starting to recognize the value of having an overdose prevention site in Saskatoon, Mercredi said, and others in the province are starting to understand the value a similar site may present in their community. 

Without an overdose prevention site in Saskatoon, Mercredi said he thinks the provincial statistics would be much higher, as at least 50 people per day were coming through Prairie Harm Reduction.

"When you have that amount of traffic, every one of those [people] is somebody that avoids going to the emergency room or dying," Mercredi said. 

"Not to mention the fact that we're able to connect them with a lot of social supports, housing, addiction supports, employment opportunities; so the benefit of having a site like ours is exponential."

He said the site is doing good work and has seen some success when it's operating to its capabilities as they stand with expanded support from the business community, but it pales in comparison to what it could be doing if it were adequately funded provincially.

Mercredi said in the last year the relationship with the province remained tense and he called for "real investment" in order to resolve Saskatchewan's overdose crisis.

He said Prairie Harm Reduction has a $1.9 million operating budget, which encompasses a family support program, naloxone administration trainers and case management costs, among other items, to provide people with a well-rounded spectrum of services and care.

Help from the province would go a long way toward expanding the centre's hours and providing additional staff coverage, ensuring those services can be provided to more of the population who needs them.

But Mercredi said he was encouraged to see what he called steps in the right direction from the government in the last year. 

Notably, he said the recent funding announcement making take-home testing strips more accessible to the public and the fact Prairie Harm Reduction is now funded to check drugs were positives in 2021. 

"The fact that they're paying for our equipment I think is a good sign, but they're still not paying for our staff at our safe consumption site," Mercredi said. 

"We're hopeful, but we're also making plans if that's not the case. We're hoping the government does the right thing and allows us to do what we want to do, which is stop people from dying."

WATCH | Jason Mercredi reflects on harm reduction in 2021:

Reflecting on 2021 at Prairie Harm Reduction with executive director Jason Mercredi

5 months ago
Duration 12:55
Prairie Harm Reduction saw an increase in community support in 2021 we talk with Jason Mercredi about the year

With files from CBC's Sam Maciag