'It doesn't get any easier': Relatives remember lost loved ones on Overdose Awareness Day
Speakers told stories about daughters and sons, called for more supervised injection sites
Dozens of people who have lost loved ones to drug use marked International Overdose Awareness Day on Saturday with speeches, stories, a public proclamation and the raising of a flag at city hall.
"It doesn't get any easier," says Mary Byberg, mother of Jennifer Barber, who died of a drug overdose in a Toronto apartment in St. James Town on Nov. 1, 2016.
"It just gets different. The day that she died I didn't think I could live another day. And yet, here I am. It's almost three years. Her birthday is in a week and a half. She would have been 33. It hurts as much as it did that day."
Byberg held up a poster featuring a photo of Barber, saying her daughter might have lived if she had access to a safe supply of drugs and if all levels of government had declared a public health emergency on the opioid crisis.
People who use drugs need kindness and compassion, not shame and scorn, she added.
"Jennifer wasn't just a person who used drugs. Jennifer was a vital part of our family. She was an aunt, a daughter, a grand-daughter. She was loved by so many people, mourned still to this day. We all still mourn but we want to see change."
Members of Moms Stop the Harm, a group of Canadian families that advocates for a harm-reduction approach to fighting addiction, organized a ceremony and the raising of the International Overdose Awareness Day flag at Nathan Phillips Square.
'Everybody is worthy of help'
Speakers and audience members shared their grief and pain and called for more supervised injection sites.
Coun. Jennifer McKelvie, who represents Ward 25 Scarborough-Rouge Park, told the crowd that stories about loved ones who have died due to overdoses are "so difficult to tell but so very important."
Theresa Zaporozan, a Port Perry resident, told CBC Toronto that she came to the ceremony to show support for overdose awareness. Her son Zachary died of an overdose on March 4, 2018 after struggling with addiction for 10 years. Two years before he died, he went to rehab. He got a job in construction.
Then, months before he died, he began drinking, and he relapsed. He got into rehab again and he was there for nearly five weeks. She said she saw him the Friday before he died. By the Sunday, the police were at her door to say he had passed away.
"He was a beautiful, handsome young man that had a baby face," she said. "Drugs are everywhere and it starts very young. It starts in public school. Drugs sometimes give people confidence where they lack confidence, or self-esteem where they lack it. The feeling that keeps coming to my mind is that everybody is worthy of help," she said.
"He's missed by so many people. And we love him," she says. "Not a moment goes by that I don't miss him."
Opioid deaths affecting life expectancy rate, mayor says
In a proclamation issued on Saturday, Toronto Mayor John Tory said the city is committed to addressing what he called the "opioid poisoning crisis" through its overdose action plan and through its prevention, harm reduction and treatment services. Tory proclaimed Saturday to be Overdose Awareness Day in Toronto.
The mayor says the deaths are affecting the life expectancy rate in Canada.
"Progress in life expectancy in Canada has slowed down for the first time in four decades because an increasing number of young people are dying from overdoses, mostly related to opioid poisoning," Tory said in the proclamation.
Tory noted that there were 1,363 opioid overdose deaths in Ontario, 294 of them in Toronto, last year, according to preliminary data. The number in Toronto is more than double the number of such deaths in 2015. About 60 per cent of those who died were under the age of 45.
Last year, Toronto paramedics responded to 3,265 opioid overdose calls, including 146 fatal suspected opioid overdoses, he added. Local supervised consumption and overdose prevention services have treated nearly 2,000 overdoses since 2017.
"Many more overdoses have been reversed, and lives have been saved at other services in and around our community," he said.
City staff won't remove Naloxone kits left in parks
Meanwhile, on Friday, the city announced that Naloxone kits left in Toronto parks to help overdose victims will no longer be removed by city staff.
According to city spokesperson Brad Ross, the city sent a notice to parks staff this week that instructs them to leave the kits alone. Members of the community have been leaving the kits attached to trees and fences to keep people safe.
"Unused Naloxone kits found in parks are to be left there, provided that they do not interfere with maintenance operations. In instances where they do pose a problem, they should be moved within the park to another area," the notice reads.