Thunder Bay

As drug-related overdose deaths soar, Thunder Bay, Ont., waits for more beds and resources

Preliminary data from Ontario's chief coroner shows there has been a record number of drug-related overdose deaths in the Thunder Bay District Health Unit's catchment area in 2021.

152 people died in the Thunder Bay District Health Unit area last year, a 50 per cent increase from 2020

Kyle Arnold, an outreach worker at the warming centre in Thunder Bay, Ont., and with the NorWest Community Health Centre's care bus, says he's been to more funerals in the first few months of 2022 than he's ever attended. (Logan Turner/CBC)

Preliminary data from Ontario's chief coroner shows there has been a record number of drug-related overdose deaths in the Thunder Bay District Health Unit's catchment area in 2021.

Last year, 152 people died in the northwestern Ontario region from an overdose. That's about two people dying every five days.

It's a shocking number for an area with less than 150,000 people, and on a per capita basis, puts the health unit among those most affected by Ontario's worsening drug crisis. 

But for those who work on the front lines every day, doing everything they can to save lives, the growing number of deaths comes as no surprise.

Kyle Arnold said he's been to more funerals in the last few months than he's ever attended. An outreach worker with both the city's only warming shelter and NorWest Community Health Centre's care bus, he estimates more than two dozen of his clients have died since last fall.

"It's absolutely devastating. As a worker trying to support people, it breaks my heart," said Arnold, speaking with CBC News in the loft of the warming centre, operated by the non-profit People Advocating for Change through Empowerment (PACE).

Wearing a grey sweater with the words "fentanyl survivor" written across the back, Arnold gets up to check on the dozen or so people in the centre, there to escape the frigid temperatures, grab a plate of spaghetti and other essentials they may need.

Arnold shows the back of his sweater, which reads "fentanyl survivor," in reference to his own experience using drugs and living with homelessness. (Logan Turner/CBC)

"Downtown here, it's non-stop. Everyday I come into work, and I'm scared of who we lost," he said. 

His colleague, Sara Dubray, an advocacy worker with PACE added, "I go home on a Friday afternoon and I constantly think about who I'm going to lose over the weekend."

Their job is to support people that are homeless or struggling with mental health or addictions, and connect them to whatever services they may want or need — setting them up with anything from social housing resources to rapid access addiction medicine clinics to detox centres.

What I'm finding is that a lot of the time, they don't make it to that second or third wait list. It's too late.- Kyle Arnold, outreach worker in Thunder Bay, Ont.

But just as they get the ball rolling for someone with one support, Arnold says, they hit a brick wall.

"You get the client past one wait list, and they get to sign up for another wait list, and then they get past that one and they sign up for another one," said Arnold.

"What I'm finding is that a lot of the time, they don't make it to that second or third wait list. It's too late."

City waiting for more detox, treatment beds

Arnold and Dubray said it speaks to the lack of resources that exist in Thunder Bay, which acts as a key service hub for communities across northwestern Ontario.

Among the most significant gaps in services in the city is detox beds — where people can receive medical support as their body withdraws from the substance or substances previously used.

The only detox facility in the city, the 25-bed Balmoral Centre, has to turn away some 3,000 people every year because they simply don't have space to keep up with the demand, according to Nancy Black, St. Joseph's Care Group vice-president of addictions and mental health.

Getting more detox beds has already been a priority in northwestern Ontario for at least decade.

In the last few months, it's become a fixation for many in the city working to increase the level of resources.

Since March 2021, a funding proposal for a 40-bed mental health and addictions crisis centre in Thunder Bay has sat on the desk of provincial Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Michael Tibollo.

In response to inquiries from CBC News about the status of that proposal, a spokesperson with the health ministry pointed to a Feb. 11 announcement of $90 million over three years to "immediately expand addictions services and increase the number of treatment beds across the province."

The spokesperson added, "further details will be released as available."

Carolyn Karle holds a photo of her daughter Dayna, 31, who died in September 2021 from an unintentional overdose in Thunder Bay, Ont. In the months since, she's led an advocacy campaign called "TBay demands detox" seeking more resources for the city. (Logan Turner/CBC)

But that answer is not good enough for Carolyn Karle, who has been persistently lobbying the province for more resources in Thunder Bay since her daughter, Dayna Karle, 31, died of an overdose on Sept. 19, 2021.

"Nothing has moved in the five months that we've been working on it, and it's amazing to me … because the amount of deaths each and every day is startling," said Karle, speaking to CBC News the same day she received the coroner's report, confirming it was a lethal amount of cocaine laced with fentanyl that caused the accidental overdose death of Dayna.

Karle actually spoke with Tibollo in recent weeks, and she said he hinted that he would soon be making an announcement in the northwest. But she doesn't understand why people in the city are still waiting.

"The fact that the government isn't moving on this, I just can't get over it. It's extremely frustrating for someone like me who has lost their daughter," she said.

Advocates expect 2022 to be worse

While 2021 saw a record number of overdose deaths in the Thunder Bay District Health Unit area, many worry this next year will be even worse.

Just this week, two alerts were issued in two days about substances with reportedly "high toxicity" on the Lifeguard mobile app, which is aimed at curbing drug overdoses.

"You wonder whose child will be next," Karle said.

A screenshot from the Lifeguard mobile application shows two alerts in two days about substances sold as "down" in Thunder Bay, Ont., that have high toxicity. (Lifeguard Digital Health)

Back at the warming centre, Arnold shared that sentiment.

"To me, it seems like the supply up here is becoming deadlier and deadlier. Every time a person uses, it's pretty much playing Russian roulette because they don't know what they're getting," Arnold said.

"It makes it extremely scary, and I don't think this trend is going to stop anytime soon."