Manitoba chief medical examiner says drug-related crisis undeniable, as overdose deaths continue to rise

The province’s chief medical examiner says it’s “undeniable” that Manitoba is experiencing a drug-related crisis, as the number of deaths from drugs in the province continues to rise. 

Dr. John Younes made the comment in an email to the CBC just days before the latest data on drug-related deaths was made available in Manitoba.

While the official number of overdose deaths for 2022 won’t be known until all toxicology reports are finalized, preliminary data from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner says at least 418 people died a drug related-death in Manitoba last year.

There were 41 suspected drug-related deaths in December — the highest number of overdose deaths in a single month in 2022.

“Each individual number represents a life destroyed by drug dependency, often after a long and miserable struggle, as well as the associated pain and distress experienced by their families and loved ones as this disease ran its course,” Younes said in an email on Sunday. 

Younes declined an interview with CBC, but answered a number of questions about illicit substances and drug-related deaths in the province in writing. 

WATCH | How one Winnipeg outreach team is trying to make a difference:

How the St. Boniface Street Links outreach team is working to meet the needs of vulnerable Winnipeggers

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The St. Boniface Street Links outreach team works with people in Winnipeg who have experienced homelessness and, in many cases, who also use substances like drugs and alcohol. As the number of drug-related deaths continues to rise in Manitoba, the CBC’s Alana Cole and Tyson Koschik spent time with the team to see how they’re trying to make a difference.

“The number of annual drug-related deaths has risen dramatically here in recent years, and the deaths are only the tip of the iceberg,” he said. 

“For every drug-related death we investigate, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of people out there who are struggling with drug dependency.”

In April 2022, preliminary data from the province’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner showed 407 Manitobans died from overdoses in 2021, up from a record 372 overdose deaths in 2020.

Younes said the increase in overdose deaths in recent years isn’t unique to Manitoba, but rather is something that has been seen in other regions across Canada and the U.S. 

A portrait of a man in a dark blue suit jacket behind a bookcase.
Younes says there were at least 228 deaths involving fentanyl toxicity last year. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

While the full picture of drug-related deaths in 2022 in Manitoba is still incomplete, there were at least 228 deaths involving fentanyl toxicity last year, he said.

Fentanyl is “far and away the most prevalent drug” associated with drug-related deaths and is present in about half of all cases, Younes said. 

“Currently, a powerful fentanyl analog known as para-fluorofentanyl is being detected in a significant percentage of deaths involving fentanyl,” he said.

A brown and black RV is parked in an outside lot.
Sunshine House received a federal exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to operate an overdose prevention site out of an RV in Winnipeg, where people can use and test drugs in the presence of peers. (Alana Cole/CBC)

In Manitoba, advocates have been calling on the province to support a supervised consumption site in Winnipeg, in addition to other harm reduction measures, as a way to reduce overdose deaths.

Sunshine House runs a mobile overdose prevention site; they received a federal exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to operate it.

In a statement earlier this week, Mental Health and Community Wellness Minister Janice Morley-Lecomte acknowledged the rise in substance use in Manitoba and said since 2019, the government has announced more than 52 initiatives valued at over $65 million to improve mental health, substance use and addictions services. 

That includes investing in rapid access to addictions medicine clinics throughout the province, including a third Winnipeg location set to open in the Aboriginal Health and Wellness Centre at the end of May, Morley-Lecomte said. 

Shared Health said currently, walk-in RAAM clinics in Winnipeg fill up fast due to a high demand for addictions medicine services. 

A spokesperson for Shared Health said in 2023, the two Winnipeg RAAM clinics have seen on average 85 people a week, which can include initial assessments and followup appointments. On average, 27 times a week a person went to a Winnipeg RAAM clinic and was unable to receive services at that time. 

“If the clinic is full, individuals may be referred to other services in the community, including the next RAAM clinic,” the spokesperson said. 

Younes said the majority of drug-related deaths occurred in Winnipeg. People age 25 to 45 are most affected, with a male predominance, he said. 

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