Community groups lobby for changes to help combat overdose deaths

Community groups in Manitoba are pleading for the premier and provincial government to do more to stop a drug crisis in Manitoba that has left hundreds of people dead and puts the province on track to record its worst year for drug-related and overdose deaths.

The Manitoba Harm Reduction Network, Main Street Project and Sunshine House — three groups that work to help the most vulnerable in this city and province — sent an open letter to the PC government and Premier Heather Stefanson this week asking the province to take immediate steps to deal with an overdose crisis they say can’t be ignored any longer because of how many people are dying.

“In 2021, the province had a record number of 407 deaths, an increase from 372 in 2020,” the letter, which has been signed by more than 80 additional Manitoba community groups states. “Data suggests that even more Manitobans will die in 2022.”

According to the organizations, Manitoba is now on track to have as many as 450 drug-related deaths by the end of this year.

“This week alone, the community has seen an increase in deaths due to a toxic supply of drugs in Winnipeg; with the community reporting five deaths due to overdose in shelters, and in the city of Winnipeg,” the letter reads.

The letter lays out seven specific steps the groups say the province must take, and a lot of what they are asking for centres around offering ways that those who are going to use drugs, can do so in a safe way, at a safe place and somewhere where their drugs can be tested for lethal substances like fentanyl.

Those steps include providing “immediate support for a mobile overdose prevention service and funding to equip them with drug testing technology to reduce overdoses and drug poisonings.”

The letter says the province could also immediately work to de-stigmatize drug use which would allow more people to feel comfortable to use drugs in the company of others, recommending that police forces “immediately and for the duration of this public health emergency cease expending resources on the enforcement of simple possession of illicit drugs and related offences.”

“As community organizations on the frontlines of the overdose crisis we are asking for immediate actions that will provide us with the tools and resources needed to respond to this crisis. We are working tirelessly to ensure not one life is lost,” the letter states.

“We need action now.”

The letter also made it clear that the organizations believe the crisis is something that is a concern beyond Winnipeg.

“Communities in rural, remote, and northern Manitoba are reaching out for support to address overdoses and overdose deaths,” the letter states.

The province sent the Winnipeg Sun two brief emailed statements responding to the contents of the open letter, and in one they responded directly to the request that police forces change the way they enforce in situations where someone is found to have drugs for personal use, making it clear those kinds of changes aren’t coming anytime soon.

“Our government is not considering the decriminalizing of illicit drugs,” a provincial spokesperson said.

And in a second email the province said, “Our government is focused on the necessary supports for Manitobans affected by mental health and addictions issues. We are helping to build core services for addictions so when Manitobans are ready for recovery, they have the services and supports they need as close and as quickly as possible.

NDP MLA for Union Station Uzoma Asagwara spoke to the Winnipeg Sun this week after the letter was released, and said she has been pushing for the PC government to take steps to address drug-related deaths, but so far feels the pleas of her and others have fallen on deaf ears.

“People are dying,” Asagwara said. “We have been watching people die preventable deaths in our communities simply because the government refuses to support proven and effective harm reduction methods.

“And I think it’s an ideological barrier where this government refuses to see people who use drugs and people who struggle with addictions as whole people who might not be in a place to stop, so therefore aren’t deserving of the proven supports they need to stay alive.

“There are real and inexpensive steps that this government could take that would literally and immediately start saving lives, and I just think it is unconscionable that we are on track to see another record-breaking year of drug overdose deaths.”

— Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

Dave Baxter, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Sun