Northern Ontario's 5 largest cities continue to have highest opioid death rates in province

Dallas Kosy, who lost a brother-in-law to addiction, says he's not surprised a recent coroner's report shows the north's five largest cities continue to have the highest opioid-related mortality rates in Ontario. Kosy believes there needs to be more supportive housing, and advocates say more funding for services and better policies could save lives.

In 2022, northern cities had 3 times the overdose mortality rates as provincial average

A man standing outside wearing a blue and black jacket.
Dallas Kosy of Sudbury lost his brother-in-law to an overdose and says it's difficult for someone to overcome addiction. As the province reports northern Ontario is still leading the province in opioid death rates, Kosy believes the problem is worse than it seems. (Aya Dufour/CBC)

Dallas Kosy says he isn't surprised to hear that northern Ontario continues to have the highest rate of opioid overdose deaths in the province.

Last week, the Office of the Chief Coroner released preliminary figures showing five cities in the region —Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, Greater Sudbury, Timmins and North Bay — had the highest opioid mortality rates per 100,000 population last year.

Kosy recently lost his brother-in-law to an overdose and has seen first hand the toll the opioid crisis has had in Sudbury.

"All those crosses that signify how large the issue is, I'm sure that's not even half of the crosses that could be put up," he said.

"There's definitely more than what's shown. I'm sure of it."

A woman stands in a field with white crosses.
Denise Sandul visits her son Myles Keaney's cross every week at the Crosses for Change site she started in 2020 in Sudbury's downtown. A white cross was planted for every opioid-related death that year. (Sam Juric/CBC)

Kosy is referring to the Crosses for Change site that Denise Sandul started in 2020 in Sudbury's downtown. A white cross was planted at the corner of Paris and Brady streets for every opioid-related death that year.

Sandul lost her 22-year-old son, Myles Keaney, to an overdose two years ago. By 2022, there were more than 244 crosses at the site.

Higher mortality rates

According to preliminary figures released May 4 from Ontario's coroner, the provincial average for opioid-related deaths per 100,000 population was 17.6. That's much lower than the average of 60.1 in northern Ontario's five largest cities.

Kosy said he's seen how difficult it is for people dealing with addiction to recover.

"You know, after you do them for so long, the withdrawal symptoms could become very serious," he said.

"And I don't think many people want to go through that two weeks or whatever it is of getting sober and physical pain like that."

He said more supportive housing would go a long way to help people in the community recover.

A woman standing in an office wearing a white sweater with the words Stop the Stigma on it.
Kaela Pelland, director of peer engagement with Réseau Access Network in Sudbury, says the opioid epidemic is too big for any one agency to tackle on its own. (Aya Dufour/CBC)

Kaela Pelland, director of peer engagement with Réseau Access Network, said it's been heart wrenching to see the number of lives lost to opioids in northern Ontario.

Réseau Access Network runs Sudbury's supervised consumption site, where clients can use drugs like opioids under the watchful eyes of health-care professionals.

The site opened in October and had 122 visits in its first two months.

Pelland said those numbers are higher now, but the site has faced some barriers to access, including a location just under one kilometre from the downtown core.

But Pelland said the drug toxicity problem is bigger than what any one agency can handle.

"The state of the crisis that people use drugs are facing right now can only be changed positively by policy change."

Those policies, Pelland said, should include efforts to decriminalize street drugs like fentanyl and create a safer supply for people who use those substances.

A black and red naloxone kit in some snow.
A discarded naloxone kit in downtown Sudbury. The medication is used to reverse the effects of an overdose. (Aya Dufour/CBC)

According to the Office of the Chief Coroner, there were 106 deaths from opioid overdoses in Sudbury in 2022, up from 98 the year before.

The city's supervised consumption site has funding to continue until the end of this year.

"Unfortunately, we have to play the waiting game [to learn if funding will continue], which is very challenging in regards to offering consistency for people who use drugs in this community and for staff of the site," Pelland said.

We don't have the resources in the municipality to provide for everyone that desperately needs the services yesterday.- Paul Lefebvre, mayor of Sudbury, Ont.

Sudbury Mayor Paul Lefebvre said the opioid crisis is "deeply concerning."

"These are our brothers and sisters, our children that are dying," he said.

"And so we have a role to play, certainly to advocate and see what we can do more with the means that we have."

Lefebvre said because Sudbury is northern Ontario's largest city, people with mental health and addiction challenges go there to access social and medical services.

But those services aren't sufficient, he said.

"Demand is too high. We don't have the resources in the municipality to provide for everyone that desperately needs the services yesterday."

He noted part of his job as mayor is to advocate for the city and get provincial and federal levels of government to invest more in those services.

A woman with glasses standing in a field.
Timmins Mayor Michelle Boileau says learning northern Ontario continues to have the highest opioid death rate in the province 'is indicative to the fact that we're facing a unique set of challenges here in the region.' (Submitted by Michelle Boileau)

Timmins Mayor Michelle Boileau said she wasn't surprised her city and others in the north have higher opioid-related mortality rates than other parts of the province.

"I think it is indicative to the fact that we're facing a unique set of challenges here in the region," she said.

Boileau said those challenges include less access to treatment services, how parts of northern Ontario fare worse on social determinants of health like education and employment, and the generational trauma caused by the residential school system.

But Boileau said Timmins's supervised consumption site has saved lives.

"We know that in the month of March alone they did respond to 25 overdoses, and they're saying that about 20 per cent of those had the potential of being fatal," she said.

In 2021, the Porcupine Health Unit area, which includes Timmins, had 41 opioid-related deaths. That dropped to 29 last year.

Despite some progress, Boileau said, more needs to be done to save lives.

"Any fatality is one too many," she said.

"And until we get to the point where we aren't seeing any opioid-related fatalities, we're going to keep working very hard on this."