Aurora Harrold lost her boyfriend Daniel to an overdose in April.
“He could light up the room. He lit up my life,” Harrold said through tears at the International Overdose Awareness Day event outside the Manitoba Legislature on Thursday.
“It’s a massive problem,” Harrold said. “Hopefully something can soon be done.”
Speakers at the event repeated calls on government to address the toxic supply of street drugs that play a role in many drug poisonings and overdose deaths. Many of those in attendance had lost loved ones to such deaths.
The latest preliminary data from Manitoba’s chief medical examiner suggests there were more than 130 suspected drug-related overdose deaths between January and April of this year. That’s part of a rising trend that saw 418 such deaths in 2022.
Dr. John K. Younes, Manitoba’s chief medical examiner, previously suggested about half of those deaths involved fentanyl toxicity.
Dr. Marcia Anderson, a public health physician and vice dean Indigenous health, social justice and anti-racism at the University of Manitoba, said more needs to be done.
“People are getting harmed by a toxic drug supply and there’s a lot more we could be doing … to reduce the risks,” she said.
She pointed to Sunshine House’s mobile overdose prevention site as a positive example of what could be expanded on to reduce risks and barriers to supports.
“Overdose prevention sites, supervised consumption sites can be a really important part of reducing overdose deaths,” she said.
“That idea of love and respect for everybody, that’s a really important part of de-stigmatization.”
There was a table at the Winnipeg event full of harm reduction supplies including clean needles and kits of naloxone, a life-saving antidote administered to someone in suffering an opioid overdose.
In Brandon, around 100 people gathered for the Toxic Blood Poisoning Awareness Walk.
Solange Machado with Brandon’s Manitoba Harm Reduction said the community has been hit hard by a spike in overdoses or toxic drug poisonings.
“We all support each other and take care of each other after every death, but it just seems like the grieving never ends,” Machado said. “We’re just starting to grieve and get to a good place and then we lose someone else. So it’s like a never-ending cycle of grief.”
Katalin Kretai was among the group that gathered to connect, heal and break down stigma.
“It was hard to tell my little boy that his Daddy was an angel and it was hard to deal with life after,” Kretai said.
She now volunteers with Brandon Overdose Awareness and said events like the walk help save lives.
“We’ll get through this together,” Kretai said. “We need to be tender to one another and not just judge people.”
Back at the Winnipeg event, Mitch Bourbonniere said the groups he works with do weekly community walks where they connect with people, including those with addictions, at homeless encampments.
“We make sure that they have harm reduction supplies, we make sure that they have food and clothing and we make sure that they have a little bit of love sent their way,” said Bourbonniere, who represented organizations OPK, Mount Carmel Clinic, the Downtown Community Safety Partnership and M’dinawemak Our Relatives Place at the event.
“My heart in this moment and every day of my life goes out to parents who have had a child die,” he said.
He has a loved one with a mental health condition who uses drugs and alcohol to cope “with horrendous experiences that he’s having inside of his own mind.”
“But he is still with me,” Bourbonniere said. “It takes Herculean efforts every day to do whatever I have to do to keep him alive. And you might call me an enabler … but you don’t know what it’s like to walk in his shoes and my shoes.”
He wants government to listen more to people who have lost a loved one to drug poisoning or who work on the frontlines.
That’s something Alrene Last-Kolb, regional director for the advocacy group Moms Stop the Harm, wants too.
On a July evening in 2014, her 24-year-old son Jesse died of a fentanyl poisoning.
There were 2,531 purple ribbons placed at the legislative steps to represent those who have died due to toxic drug supply between 2014 and April of this year.
“There is no room in our government in this province for decisions to be based on religion, privilege and ‘we know better attitudes,'” she said.
“We have the evidence that harm reduction works. We have the proof that we can save lives. A toxic supply of street drugs is what is killing our loved ones right now.”
Jacob Kaufman is a peer advocate for Main Street Project. He has lived experience as someone recovering from a heroin addiction.
“Harm reduction saved my life,” he said. “It’s about damned time the government wakes up and realizes the only way forward is with harm reduction, with safe supply [of drugs]. Stop letting our family members be poisoned daily.”
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