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Opioid overdose deaths reach record level in Canada

A deeper dive into the day's most notable stories with The National newsletter's Jonathon Gatehouse.

Newsletter: A deeper dive into the day's most notable stories

The sharp spike in fatal overdoses in Canada over the past several years is mostly attributable to one drug, fentanyl. (CBC)

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  • A record number of Canadians died of opioid overdoses in 2017, according to figures released today
  • The killings of community and human rights activists in Colombia have topped 200 over the past year
  • A burgeoning cheating scandal has left Australians wondering if their national cricket team is still fit to represent them
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here

Hard numbers on hard drugs

A record number of Canadians died of opioid overdoses in 2017, according to figures released by Health Canada today.

The data shows a sharp spike in fatal overdoses — up more than 45 per cent from 2016's then-record 2,861 deaths, with 2,923 victims in just the first nine months of 2017.

The vast majority of the overdose deaths —72 per cent — are attributable to one drug, fentanyl.

And the government expects that the final 2017 death toll from Canada's hard-drug epidemic will surpass 4,000.

That may well be enough to push overdoses into the top 10 causes of death for the first time.

Police are increasingly seeing street drugs cut with fentanyl, making them more powerful and addictive. (The Associated Press/Patrick Sison)
In 2015, according to the latest available data, chronic liver disease killed 3,176 people, ranking tenth, while suicide took 4,405 lives, coming ninth. Canada's No. 1 killer remains cancer, which caused 77,054 deaths in 2015.

This mirrors a similar pattern in the United States, where 55,045 people died of all "drug-induced causes" in 2015. That's more than firearms (36,252), alcohol-related deaths (33,171), or motor-vehicle accidents (36,161 deaths).

And it's a greater toll than the peak of the AIDS epidemic, which saw 44,699 deaths in 1994.

Ottawa tried to get out in front of Canada's depressing new numbers yesterday, with Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor announcing new measures to make it easier for doctors to prescribe methadone and pharmaceutical-grade heroin.

Minister of Health Ginette Petitpas Taylor announced new measures on Monday to make it easier for doctors to prescribe methadone and pharmaceutical-grade heroin. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)
But the numbers surrounding people who are seeking treatment for their opioid addictions are no less staggering.

In Ontario in 2016, 40,862 individuals were prescribed methadone and 13,300 suboxone, a newer treatment.

In 1996, when methadone was much harder to access, Ontario had just 3,000 listed patients. In 2012, there were 38,000.

The number under treatment in British Columbia hit 18,000 in 2017.

The growth in addicts seeking treatment reflects not only the exploding opioid epidemic, but also changing government responses to the problem. More than 70 private methadone clinics have sprouted up across Ontario in recent years. Which in turn, helped spur the province to enact a host of new anti-opioid measures in late 2016, including adding suboxone to the list of treatments covered under its drug benefit plan.

The number of opioid prescriptions — the way most people access and become hooked on the painkillers — written in Canada continues to increase, up 6.8 per cent between 2012 and 2016 to 21.5 million a year.

A fatal dose of fentanyl can be as small as 2 milligrams. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
But the amount of the drugs being dispensed declined 8.9 per cent over the same period, from 238 million "defined daily doses" to 226 million.

Still, more than 20 per cent of Canadian seniors received at least one opioid prescription in 2015-16. And in Ontario, where there were 9.15 million prescriptions filled by some 2 million people, close to 14 per cent of the population had access to the strongest medicine available.

And that's just the legal stuff.

Between June 2016 and September 2017, Canadian Border Services made 156 seizures of illicit fentanyl, mostly coming from China. And in the first three-quarters of its 2017-18 fiscal year, the agency reports that it has seized 11,497 grams of illicit fentanyl.

A fatal dose of the drug, which is up to 50 times more potent than heroin, can be as small as 2 milligrams.

Killings in Colombia

Colombia has officially been at peace for more than a year, but the killings continue. And the new targets appear to be community and human rights activists.

Since the beginning of 2017 at least 213 local leaders have been murdered, even as the country's homicide rates have fallen to their lowest levels in more than 40 years.

People in Medellin take part in a Jan. 31 tribute to social leaders murdered in Colombia in recent months. (Joaquin Sarmiento/AFP/Getty Images)
So far this week, two more victims have been identified.

Jose Herrera headed a farmer's association in Puerto Valdivia. Francisco Zabala was a member of El Riso's community action board.

Both communities are in a rural area north of Medellin, where violence continues to flare as members of the ELN, the country's last remaining guerilla group, are battling drug cartels for control of the region and its lucrative cocaine trade.

Outgoing President Juan Manuel Santos won the Nobel Peace Prize for striking a 2016 deal with FARC rebels, bringing a conclusion to a civil war that had dragged on for more than 50 years and killed 220,000 people, displacing millions more.

Members of the 'Omar Gomez' Western War Front of the ELN guerrilla group in their camp near the San Juan River in November 2017. The ELN is one of the groups fighting for control of Colombia's drug trade. (Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images)
But as FARC soldiers have disarmed and transformed themselves into politicians, a power vacuum has been left behind in the areas they once controlled.

Government forces have so far proven unable, or unwilling, to step in and fill the void.

In some areas, desperate residents have been forced to make a choice between evils, petitioning the remaining rebels to come and help them fight the criminal gangs.

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos, centre, examines a police seizure of more than 12 tons of cocaine displayed in Apartado on Nov. 8, 2017. (Reuters)
The United Nations highlighted the targeted killings in a report last December, urging more security and accountability.

But with the overall peace deal still fragile — FARC failed to win a single seat in recent congressional elections — a real end to the violence appears far away.

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Simply not cricket

Cricket has long been known as the "gentleman's game." But a burgeoning cheating scandal has left Australians wondering if their national team is still fit to represent them.

On Saturday, during a test match in South Africa, television cameras captured the most junior member of the team, Cameron Bancroft, rubbing the ball with a piece of sticky yellow tape in an effort to make it dart and dive.

He was then seen stashing the tape in his underwear as umpires approached to investigate.

This image taken from footage released by AFP TV shows Australia's captain Steve Smith, right, flanked by teammate Cameron Bancroft, during a press conference in Cape Town on March 24 as he admitted to ball-tampering during the third Test against South Africa. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Confronted with the video evidence, Australia's captain, Steve Smith, confessed to a plot to "get an advantage" by tampering with the ball, a decision he said was made by the team's "leadership group."

Smith was in turn banned from the fourth and final match of the series, scheduled for Friday, and fined, as was Bancroft.

But that was just the beginning.

The revelation has touched off a frenzy of national soul searching back home.

Smith prepares to bowl a delivery in the nets at the MCG in Melbourne on December 25, 2017. (William West/AFP/Getty Images)
"The discussion in the dressing room has changed careers and lives, shattered reputations and left Australia's treasured national sport in crisis," the Sydney Morning Herald proclaimed today. 

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has twice expressed his deep disappointment.

"This cheating is a disgrace, we all know that, it is a terrible disgrace," he said Tuesday, calling for further disciplinary action. "We want to get to the point where we can all say once again, not rhetorically but heartfelt and with sincerity, that cricket is a fair game, cricket is a game that is synonymous with a fair go and fair play. That is what has to happen."

So have former Aussie cricket greats, including Steve Waugh.

"The Australian cricket team has always believed it could win in any situation, against any opposition, by playing combative, skilful and fair cricket, driven by our pride in the fabled baggy green," he wrote in a lengthy Facebook post. "I will support all positive action to ensure an outcome for the betterment of the game, regaining the trust and faith of every fan of cricket."

Cricket balls, like the pink ones seen here that are used for floodlit games, get scuffed naturally during play. But it's against the rules to deliberately alter their surface texture. (Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images)
Australia has a history of bad on-pitch behaviour. Fifteen years ago, members of the national side drew up a "spirit of cricket" mission statement following allegations of intimidating and "sledging" opponents -- Aussie slang for verbal abuse. And South Africa's coach Ottis Gibson has suggested that the Australian team still suffers from a "win at all costs" mentality.

The head of Cricket Australia, James Sutherland, and his integrity officer Iain Roy, flew to South Africa to deal with the crisis and today announced that Smith, Bancroft, and vice-captain David Warner have all been sent home for their part in the scandal.

Australia's Mitchell Marsh in action during the South Africa vs Australia Third Test in Cape Town, South Africa, on March 25. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters)
More penalties, including suspensions, will follow.

But that's not the end of the trouble for world-third-ranked Australia.

There are reports of fierce infighting among those who remain on the team. Major sponsors are said to be reevaluating their deals.

And questions are now being raised about Australia's win over England in the Ashes Series last December.

Quote of the moment

"I've never seen anything quite so Jurassic … I call it the root of all evil."

- Osoyoos, B.C., plumber David Wilchynski, after he and colleagues spent two hours wrestling a 12-metre long willow tree root out of a blocked storm drain.

Workers inspect the massive willow tree root removed from a drain in Osoyoos, B.C. (Grant McCulloch)

What The National is reading

  • Whistleblower says 'cheating' changed Brexit vote outcome (CBC)
  • New Zealand says it would expel Russian spies … but it can't find any (Guardian)
  • Standoff in Kenya as government tries to deport opposition leader to Canada, again (Africanews)
  • Mystery armoured train in China sparks rumours of Kim Jong-un visit (SCMP)
  • Canada gives border agents extra powers to crack down on cheap steel, aluminum (CBC)
  • Uber barred from resuming Arizona self-drive trial (BBC)
  • The challenge of tracking France's 20,000 suspected extremists (France24)
  • People around the world are using more antibiotics than ever (Time)

Today in history

March 27, 1971: René, The Queen and the FLQ

René Lévesque was at his prickly, magnetic best in this Saskatchewan press conference, parrying reporters' questions and scattering bon mots with abandon. "Trudeau wasn't acting, he was overkilling," the Parti Québécois leader says of the Prime Minister's decision to put troops on the streets during the October Crisis. He calls Don McDonald, the minister of national defence, a "jerk." Lévesque even has a few words to about her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, under whose portrait he is seated. "I have great respect for the Queen," he says. "But what the hell part should the monarchy have in Quebec?"

(And if you are looking for more contemporary House of Windsor news, subscribe to CBC's new Royal Fascinator newsletter and keep up to date on all things Harry and Meghan.)

René Lévesque, The Queen and the FLQ

52 years ago
Duration 8:00
The PQ leader discusses a variety of topics at this Saskatchewan press conference.

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Jonathon Gatehouse

CBC Investigative Journalist

Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.