Deaths from opioid intoxication have skyrocketed in time COVID-19 pandemicprompted calls for the flag at Parliament Hill to be lowered halfway to honor those who died.
That call came from Sen. Vernon Whitea former Ottawa police chief, as well as family members who have lost loved ones to the ongoing opioid crisis.
“There are 30,000 reasons to half-tire the Canadian flag,” said Steve Smith, who lost his stepdaughter to one drug told Global News in a statement this past summer.
“Because 30,000 victims should be remembered. Show families they are not alone. That Canada really cares. It can stop someone from using drugs or spur people to recover. “
From January 2016 to December 2021, there were more than 29,000 deaths from opioid poisoning across the country, according to Health Canada. A day with a flag at half-mast in recognition of those lives, Smith said, “don’t ask too much.”
“Families live with their loss every day,” the statement said.
Although White and the Smith family have both spoken to the government about the matter, their request has not yet been granted.
Initially, their wish was to see the flag lowered on International Overdose Awareness Day. But that date has passed on August 31 – there is no sign of the flag being lowered.
“I don’t have much hope,” White told Global News in an interview.
“I think, really, that and many people are afraid to talk about it.”
In a statement sent to Global News, the office of Secretary of State for Mental Health and Addiction Carolyn Bennett defended the decision not to lower the flag.
Government buildings around the country were bathed in purple light on Overdose Awareness Day, they said, and the minister spent the day meeting with families in Sudbury, Ont., who have been affected. by this problem.
A Bennett spokesperson said: “This trip is a poignant reminder of the work ahead in our fight to end this crisis and save more lives.”
“We are grateful to everyone who met us as well as the heroic individuals and organizations across Canada who continue to fight for better services for people who use drugs in honor of all those who died from an overdose.”
The government did not say whether it would continue to lower the flag.
The opioid crisis worsens across Canada
In the pre-pandemic years, there were between eight and 12 deaths from opioid poisoning each day in the country, according to Health Canada. But in 2021, a staggering 21 people die from opioid poisoning every day on average.
That’s the lives of more than 7,500 people ending in 2021 alone, in what Health Canada has described as an “overdose crisis”.
Year-over-year, opioid-related deaths jumped 96 percent after the COVID-19 pandemic began – which Health Canada said could be due to a number of factors, including the “supplies increasingly toxic drugs, increased feelings of isolation, stress and anxiety, and changes in the availability or accessibility of services for people who use drugs. “
The opioid crisis is also swallowing up different demographics. While Health Canada says young to middle-aged men continue to be hardest hit, White warns that opiates are indiscriminate with their victims.
“I don’t think we fully understand who is being affected by this. I mean, I know easily 10 or 15 families have lost someone to an accidental drug overdose,” he said.
“We’re talking about average, average families… a couple in North Vancouver both with decent middle-income jobs and a child at home, both of whom overdosed after buying counterfeit drugs. and (died) at night.”
Wendy Muckle is the CEO of Ottawa Inner Health, an organization that provides health care services to the homeless and street communities in Ottawa. It also operates a safe consumption site for drug users.
As a community, drug users – and those who live and work with them – feel “very lonely,” she said.
“It’s impossible any day of the week not to hear about someone else dead… people you’ve known many, many years, and know very well,” says Muckle.
“We are in a war inside this whole other world, and no one else really knows that we are at war…. We grieve all the time and no one seems to grieve with us.”
Lowering the flag is the bare minimum – but a start
Chad Bouthillier works at a safe consumption site operated by the City of Ottawa Health Department. He supported calls to lower the flag as a symbolic move to support those affected by the opioid crisis – but he warned that action alone would not solve the problem.
“Lowering a flag won’t stop people from dying. I think there’s a lot of things that have to happen,” he said.
“And I know it’s hard to get all of that.”
Bouthillier says addiction comes from “pain”. Abuse, mental health problems, and housing instability all contribute to the types of pain people feel. Drug use would fill that “gap,” he added.
“Once they take a certain drug, such as (an) opioid, it becomes a physical need that their body depends on that drug,” Bouthillier explains.
That’s why abstinence-only methods don’t work, says Bouthillier, and harm-minimizing methods should be prioritized.
There are a number of things the government can do to begin harm reduction and addressing the opioid crisis, says Muckle.
According to Muckle, simply identifying drug possession would be a good first step, as well as ensuring all Canadians have a home. Providing access to a safer drug supply could also help reduce harm caused by the opioid crisis, she added.
“It is very difficult for the government to swallow the entire long list of requirements,” says Muckle.
“But unless we can actually make all those changes, we won’t be ahead of this. And that’s the problem… everyone is trying their best and everyone thinks they’re doing what they can – but we’re really not making progress. “
As for the push to lower the flag, Smith and White did not ease. It’s about perception, says White.
“It can happen to anyone. And the families that I know, they were just like me, (it) could have been me so easily, could have been my kids,” he said.
“So I think that’s the recognition we have to bring home.”
Meanwhile, as advocates await government action, more and more Canadians continue to die from opioid poisoning every day.
“It’s hard to imagine any other situation in Canada where 21 people die every day – every day – and the government and the public have not taken that seriously,” Muckle said.
“When you think that 21 people a day in this country are dying from a completely preventable situation, it’s shameful.”
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