The opioid crisis: How one man is fighting to prevent overdose deaths in Saskatchewan
Jason Mercredi is on a mission to keep Saskatoon's first supervised consumption site open
Jason Mercredi keeps a manila envelope full of funeral cards close. He said the cards could paper his office walls twice over.
"You need those reminders of the people that have passed so that you keep fighting for the people that are living," he said.
By the time he became executive director of the Saskatoon-based organization Prairie Harm Reduction (PHR) in 2016, he had seen 120 clients die.
There have been more deaths since then, and Mercredi predicts there will be more moving forward now that the fatal opioid overdose crisis has settled into Saskatchewan.
"It's hard not to get frustrated and basically sound like an old man yelling at a cloud when I talk about these issues, but the situation has rapidly deteriorated," Mercredi said. "We're seeing a record number of overdoses … We're seeing limitations on services due to COVID, but even pre-COVID we predicted that the overdose crisis was coming."
That prediction is why Mercredi and his team worked so hard to open Saskatchewan's first supervised consumption site last fall. "People can legally smoke, inject, eat or snort their drugs in our facility," he said.
To Mercredi it was an obvious solution to preventing fatal overdoses, while also limiting the spread of HIV. Saskatchewan consistently leads the provinces in HIV rates. The primary spread of transmission is injection drug use.
The facility was approved by Health Canada in 2019 and was ready to serve people at the beginning of last year, but PHR hit a roadblock when the Saskatchewan government declined to provide $1.3 million in funding for the site.
Mercredi wasn't expecting the rejection. The money would have primarily been used to hire paramedics to staff the site. They had the facility set up but couldn't pay people to work there.
So they dedicated months and resources to fundraising. While they scrambled to raise cash, people were overdosing just behind their building.
Local businesses, artists and community members started pitching in. The community fundraising effort allowed PHR to hire one paramedic and open in October, although with reduced capacity and hours compared to what was initially planned.
Instead of a 24-hour site open every day, they now run Monday to Friday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., hours that Mercredi says do not meet the needs of people who use drugs. In 2020, the number of fatal overdoses in Saskatchewan doubled compared to 2019. These records don't take into account the people who survive.
'Inaction is going to produce worse and worse results'
Saskatchewan Coroners Service data shows there has been 75 confirmed and suspected fatal overdoses between Jan. 1 and Feb. 28, 2021.
"When you have a record number of people dying, more than a dead person a day in the province of a million people, it's f--king pathetic," he said. "Inaction is going to produce worse and worse results."
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health did not directly answer why the government did not fund the supervised consumption site. In an email, they said the province did put $300,000 toward PHR's last budget, which contributed to "outreach services; a healthcare provider and public education and training; development and distribution of resources; two peer support workers; and two harm reduction case workers."
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Last June, Jim Reiter, who was Saskatchewan's health minister at the time, said, "It's difficult doing a budget. It's a question of where you put priorities over other priorities... It was decided that this year the priority needed to be treatment beds and counselling and medical supports."
Reiter said the government increased funding to PHR so it could hire two additional caseworkers. Mercredi said PHR is grateful for the additional caseworkers, but it shouldn't be an either-or situation.
Mercredi has submitted another proposal to the Saskatchewan government for the April budget. He believes the province should take more responsibility for public health issues.
Health should be led from the health authority, but if they're not, we're going to step in.- Jason Mercredi
"Health should be led from the health authority, but if they're not, we're going to step in, and that's where we're kind of at now," he said. "But I'm hopeful in the next couple of years, it's going to really shift."
Mercredi said while they opened the consumption site because of community support, at times they do experience pushback. However, he says that critics are loud, but small in numbers.
Staff spent months knocking on every door in the neighborhood to talk about the site before it opened. He said more than 75 per cent of neighborhood people were in support, including police and local businesses.
However, he said there were a few who suggested they should have consulted beyond the neighborhood.
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"Our mandate isn't to support somebody that's living in the suburbs. Our mandate is to support people who are at risk of HIV and hepatitis C and prevent those infections from happening and prevent overdoses from happening," he said. "That's who we're going to listen to when we're designing services."
Mercredi said pushback is often rooted in misunderstanding harm reduction or in assumptions that crime will increase (he says it hasn't) or that needles will be more present (they don't give out needles, they pick them up.)
"Are you arguing for people to die? Because really that's what people argue for when they say they don't want these services here," Mercredi said. "Not in my backyard is really saying that these people don't belong in the community and what we were saying was, yes, they do."
More than a safe consumption site
Mercredi wants the government to fund the site so they can operate a fully functioning facility. Then the efforts spent crowdsourcing money to operate the site could be directed into their other operations. The supervised consumption site is only a small part of what they do.
The centre connects people with nurses, counselling and elder services. Their clients include people living with addictions, homelessness and mental health challenges. Mecredi said clients are often struggling with intergenerational trauma from residential schools. Many were bounced around through the foster care system and have been abused.
The organization employs family support workers, helping people parent and navigate the foster care system. It also provides job opportunities and decent wages for community members.
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It also runs a drop-in centre with a TV, a public washroom and hot coffee. Mercredi said it's a space where people can be treated with respect no matter their background.
"The big thing we're finding people always want is a place where they feel welcome, a sense of community."
He said as the addictions crisis grows, he would like to see other agencies get to PHR's level of services.
"If we have local orgs stepping up, we're going to support them as best we can. Even if that means we have to help them fundraise," he said. "If we don't have any takers, then we're just going to go and set up tents in the park, we'll buy buildings if we have to."
He said other agencies need to adopt their agency's approach of speaking honestly and truly embracing harm reduction. He said that means helping people with no strings attached. Too often, he says, people talk about helping someone and then in the same breath they talk about how they can force them to detox or abstain.
"A big thing happens when you don't try to push things on people. They start to feel that support. They start to feel that love and eventually they're going to start to feel that love towards themselves."
About the Producer
Kendall Latimer loves to share stories using words, photography, cinematography and sound. The award-winning journalist works as a reporter with CBC News in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. She connects most closely with character-driven and human-interest stories. She strives to elevate the voices of people who might not have a platform and tackles stories of injustice and accountability. For example, she collaborated on an investigation earlier this year that sparked an unprecedented #MeToo movement in Saskatchewan's capital city. Latimer has an unrelenting curiosity and enjoys exploring Saskatchewan stories. She has also worked for CBC News in Yellowknife, NT and for The Bangkok Post in Thailand.
This documentary was produced with Alison Cook and made through the Doc Mentorship Program.