Particularly in the North, the opioid crisis is front and center in this Ontario election

When Felicia Fahey goes to the polls on June 2, her cousin, Steven Legault, will be at the top of the list. In September 2020, Legault died of an accidental overdose.

“It shook our whole family. He was like a brother to me. … seeing him succumb to something that was so preventable was just devastating,” said Fahey, who lives in Greater Sudbury.

For those affected by the opioid crisis, the toll of addictions and a supply of toxic drugs is a constant and growing concern. For many Ontarians, especially those in the North, this is also an important election issue.

“It’s something that can’t be put on the back burner, or we’re going another four years of seeing these numbers continue to rise and it just can’t happen,” Fahey said. “We have to do something this year.”

Northern Ontario hardest hit

Opioid-related deaths continue to soar across the province, with northern Ontario particularly hard hit. The most recent figures from the province’s Chief Coroner indicate that last year 2,819 Ontarians died from opioids, a figure that includes both confirmed and probable opioid-related deaths.

While the overdose crisis affects every region of Ontario – and the country – the toll in Northern Ontario is disproportionate. The six public health units with the most deaths per capita in 2021 were all in northern Ontario, with Thunder Bay topping the list.

Public Health Sudbury & Districts, which topped the list in 2020, saw a slight decline, with 100 probable and confirmed deaths in 2021, down from 106 the previous year.

“It’s not numbers, it’s human beings, it’s members of our community who are no longer with us,” said Amber Fritz, social worker at the Access Network in Sudbury.

Calls to invest in addiction treatment

Depending on who you ask, there are different views on how best to deal with the opioid crisis. But those affected agree that massive investment is needed.

Felicia Fahey remembers how difficult it was to help her cousin access drug treatment.

Felicia Fahey’s cousin died of an overdose in September 2020. Mental health and addictions are a key election issue for her. (Yvon Theriault/CBC)

“It takes enough time for people who are suffering from addiction to ask for help. And then when they finally ask for help, they don’t get help, they don’t know who to ask for help, or when they eventually ask for help finding those connections, they’re told we can get you into a rehab program in a year or eight months,” Fahey said.

She wants to see significant investments in mental health and addictions treatment, as well as more police enforcement to get drugs off the streets.

At Monarch Recovery Services in Sudbury, executive director Roxane Zuck said recent provincial funding of $2.5 million for 15 new beds at Monarch “will make a huge difference for the people we serve.” But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. ”

Roxane Zuck, CEO of Monarch Recovery Services in Sudbury, says $2.5 million in provincial funding for 15 new beds will make a difference, but “that’s just the tip of the iceberg.” (Jan Lakes/CBC)

Here are some of the major party promises:

  • Progressive Conservatives: An additional investment of $204 million in mental health and addictions services.
  • NDP: An immediate 8% increase in funding for frontline mental health and addictions agencies, and targeted funding for hospitals to increase the number of treatment beds for people with complex needs.
  • Liberals: An additional $3 billion for mental health and addictions over four years, including $300 million specifically to prevent and treat opioid addiction and overdoses.
  • Green Party: Promises to increase mental health and addictions spending to 10% of the health budget.

Risk reduction

Many advocates are also calling for more investment and focusing on harm reduction initiatives and policies. They say it is important to recognize that some people will continue to be dependent on drugs and that programs are in place to keep them safe.

Conservatives, Liberals and Greens are all promising greater distribution of naloxone, a fast-acting drug that can temporarily reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. The Liberals are also promising greater availability of fentanyl test strips.

Amber Fritz of Réseau Access Network says the illicit drug supply is becoming increasingly toxic. (Submitted by Amber Fritz)

At Réseau Access Network, Amber Fritz says that the organization distributes “an astronomical quantity of naloxone”. While this is a valuable and important tool, it is clear that the illicit drug supply is becoming more toxic, she said.

On a personal level, she would like to see a safe drug supply program, which would mean providing a regulated supply of drugs to people who use them so they don’t have to depend on an unpredictable and toxic illicit market.

The Greens and NDP both said they would look at more secure supply options. The NDP has said it will work with the federal government to decriminalize personal drug use.

‘Where are our resources?’

The NDP, Liberals and Greens are all promising more supervised consumption sites across the province, with the NDP and Liberals specifically promising to remove a cap put in place by the Ford government that limits the number of sites.

This week, Health Canada approved a federal exemption allowing the opening of a long-awaited supervised consumption site in Sudbury. Advocates, however, say more sites and other supports are needed in northern communities.

“The communities that are suffering the most from the addiction crisis are in Northern Ontario,” said Karla Ghartey, nurse and volunteer with the Sudbury Temporary Overdose Prevention Society (STOPS). “Where are our resources? There’s a supervised consumption site, for example, north of Toronto, and that’s in Thunder Bay. Why has it taken so long for these things to move forward in our communities?”

Marie Pollock is co-founder of the Sudbury Temporary Overdose Prevention Society, which provides peer support and awareness based on her lived experience with drugs. (Jonathan Migneault/CBC)

STOPS formed in 2019 and has operated an unauthorized site on and off ever since. A group of volunteers were called to action by the urgency of the crisis, and they said it had saved lives.

Co-founder Marie Pollock hopes politicians of all parties will think about the human toll of the overdose crisis and make significant policy changes, along with investments in affordable housing, mental health services and harm reduction. For those who are not convinced, it also has an economic argument.

“How much money do you spend on your courts, how much money do you spend on your 911 calls, and your ambulance, and your EMS, and your fire departments, and your hospital visits? And by the way , how many dollars are you sending on mental health for families who have to heal from the grief of losing someone?”