Too little being done in Manitoba to stop drug overdose deaths, say families of victims

Someone in Manitoba dies from a drug overdose every day on average, and families who have lost loved ones say not enough is being done to keep these preventable deaths from happening. 

It’s a pain Joseph Fourre and his family are living through right now. 

His son, Harlan, was one of six people who overdosed on what RCMP said were tainted drugs in The Pas last weekend.

“It’s killing people,” he said. “It’s killing our kids.”

Harlan was expected to be taken off life support earlier this week, but that will now likely happen Friday, when his lungs, kidneys, eyes and tissue will be donated, his father said.

Seeing his son die from a drug overdose brings back painful memories for Fourre.

He lived with addiction himself, and says he suffered a series of overdoses. He only got help when his daughter found him living on the streets, he said.

She “found me, you know, on the streets of another city and … [said], ‘That’s enough, please come home. I’m getting married. I want you to walk me down the aisle and we love you. I don’t want to bury you,'” said Fourre.

Two men are pictured in Winnipeg Jets jerseys, posing with a mascot.
Joseph Fourre with Harlan. Fourre wants to see the province invest more heavily in treatment for those living with addiction. (Submitted by Joseph Fourre)

He’s now been sober for four years.

But too little is being done to help those who are still struggling with addiction, or to help ensure a safe drug supply, he said.

418 deaths in 2022

Preliminary data for 2022 released by the province on Thursday shows there were 418 suspected drug-related deaths in Manitoba last year alone.

“It is undeniable that Manitoba, like much of North America, is experiencing a crisis of drug-related morbidity and mortality,” Manitoba Chief Medical Examiner Dr. John Younes told CBC via email. 

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

Younes said fentanyl is the most prevalent drug associated with drug-related deaths, and was present in about half of all cases last year. 

Nearly 3,000 people have died from drugs in Manitoba since 2014, according to data from the medical examiner’s office. 

“We talk about numbers and data and information, but they’re people,” said Arlene Last-Kolb, an advocate with the group Moms Stop the Harm.

“They’re somebody’s son and daughter, maybe a husband,” she said. “They’re people and we can’t ever forget that.”

A woman with long dark hair wearing a pink shirt with white polka dots and jeans is sitting on a chair in her living room with her dog beside her.
Arlene Last-Kolb’s son Jessie died from a fentanyl overdose in 2014. (Travis Golby/CBC)

She knows the heartache behind the numbers all too well. Her son Jessie died from a fentanyl overdose in 2014. 

“Whenever we get those numbers, yeah, it kills us a little bit because they keep going up every year, and we just can’t accept this,” she said. “We cannot just get used to this. This is way too many.”

This has been a particularly hard week for many families who have lost loved ones to overdoses, Last-Kolb said, as they watch the Fourre family live through the same thing. 

“That just is gut-wrenching.… That takes us right back to what happened with our own children,” she said.

“We relive those nightmare memories all over again. We’re right there with the family. We’re picturing everything in the hospital that is happening.”

On top of the pain, Last-Kolb said she feels anger as she sees preventable deaths continue to happen, despite advocating for change after her own son’s death nearly nine years ago.   

The 418 deaths last year mean on average, more than one Manitoban died every day due to an overdose, she said.

“How is that acceptable? How can we expect families to advocate for change … when they’re grieving the loss of their child?”

Call to action

Both Fourre and Last-Kolb say change is needed quickly to prevent more deaths.

Too many people are on waiting lists for centres and detox beds, said Last-Kolb, unable to get the help they need in a reasonable amount of time. 

“What does the government think that people are doing on waiting lists? They’re doing drugs,” she said.

“It’s just insane. That is not an answer to a toxic drug supply.”

Access to a safe drug supply is critical, as many communities are being hit with tainted drugs, said Last-Kolb.

“All [the government] wants to do is arrest people. How are you ever going to stop this from happening? It’s just not possible,” she said.

Those resources need to be focused on helping people by ensuring a safe drug supply, she said.

Last month, the Progressive Conservative government introduced the Addictions Services Act — legislation that would set out licensing requirements for addiction centres with beds and withdrawal-management services.

Mental Health and Community Wellness Minister Janice Morley-Lecomte said earlier this month that legislation will help provide people with access to a “pathway to recovery.”

But Fourre wants to see the province invest more heavily in treatment.

Addiction can’t stay in the shadows anymore and must be addressed, he said.

“This city needs more affordable treatment beds, treatment facilities,” said Fourre.

“We need to move in the direction of mandatory treatment, you know, to make those decisions for those people that aren’t capable of making it for themselves.”

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