Lee Earnshaw is remembered by his family as a caring father of four, a commercial fisherman with a comical energy and an ability to find humour in any situation.
“He was just the kindest soul. He had a way of always making people feel accepted and welcomed. Even when he was a child he was like that,” Carol Packer, Lee’s sister, said.
“He loved and adored animals, he loved his family, and we loved him just as equally.”
Packer says her brother struggled with addiction off and on throughout the years, but was able to overcome it on his own. But when he moved to Manitoba from British Columbia in 2017, he experienced a relapse, and was living in a fishing tent on the banks of the Seine River while addicted to fentanyl.
At the end of last year, the outreach team with St. Boniface Street Links formed a relationship with Lee, and checked on him three to four times a day.
“It was his goal to return to his family and return to his life as a commercial fisherman and try to rid himself of what he described as this horrible affliction of opioid addiction,” St. Boniface Street Links executive director and founder Marion Willis told Global News.
“He tried so hard. I’ve never really met anybody in recent times that wanted to live more than Lee did. But the system of care that Lee needed just didn’t exist.”
Willis says Lee tried to access treatment at RAAM clinics and detox centres at least five times, but was turned away each time.
“He was seen and told to come back another time, an appointment an addict can’t keep,” Willis said. “If Lee would leave an appointment without treatment his next stop was to his drug dealer, and he would tell us that: ‘I’ve got to go now, I’ve got to go find a way to use.'”
He passed away in June 2021.
“It’s really hard for people to make a decision to get help and take that step, and Lee took that step many, many times and he had the courage to speak out about it,” Packer said.
“We have to understand how hard it is for people who use drugs not only to speak out about it but to share their experience. It’s really courageous what he did and we’re all very proud of him.”
Now the family, along with advocates, have submitted a letter to the Chief Medical Examiner, calling for an inquest into Lee’s death.
“Lee’s story is pretty much everybody’s story as an addict. I think with a view to ensuring Lee’s death is not in vain, we need for there to be an inquest into the death of Lee Earnshaw, because we have personal experience working with him — not just me, an outreach team, psych nurses that were a part of this,” Willis said.
“All of us working so hard, always sitting, planning with Lee, (and) Lee doing everything he could with that.”
Willis says Lee even spent time at Morberg House, and his goal was to get clean and return home to British Columbia and get back to commercial fishing.
“He wanted to go home to B.C. and reunite with his family and connect with his dad who lives in B.C.. He wanted his life back; he wanted his sober life back, and he knew it was possible because he had done it before, but he couldn’t do it in Winnipeg, Man., because we simply don’t have the system of care to support him,” Willis added.
“Lee is a part of that new face of homelessness. It’s a face that’s born out of a drug epidemic in this city that we really haven’t done much to address. It’s also a face that’s multiplied and multiplied time and time again.”
Willis says for people who are experiencing homelessness, the barriers to accessing treatment are only magnified.
“We have a drug epidemic that was never really addressed, and if you don’t address disease, it spreads,” she said.
“I think an inquest into the death of Lee Earnshaw will offer a very clear portrait of where the gaps and deficiencies are.”
The province says currently there 20 non-medical withdrawal beds at Main Street Project in Winnipeg. Prior to the pandemic, there were 29, but the number was reduced to meet physical distancing requirements. The beds are consistently at full capacity and the average wait time is just over three weeks.
For women, there are 26 non-medical withdrawal beds that are generally at or close to full capacity. The wait time for those beds averages from zero to four days.
There are 11 medical withdrawal beds in the addictions unit at the Health Sciences Centre, which are usually at full capacity and admissions are generally done on an urgent basis.
The province also says the Klinic Community Health Centre provides mobile withdrawal management services, and can usually help up to 16 people at one time, depending on the complexity of their needs. That is also usually operating at capacity.
Packer says that is unacceptable.
“For someone on opioid addictions, they can’t wait for hours without going through withdrawal and the awful symptoms that come along with that,” she said.
“It’s painful, it’s dangerous, and they need medical attention.”
In an emailed statement to Global News, health minister Audrey Gordon touted recent investments the province has made to help those dealing with substance abuse.
“We understand COVID-19 has had a dramatic affect (sic) on those with addictions in Manitoba, and our government is committed to reducing risk for people using drugs and helping people get access to programs and services to overcome their addictions. We continue evaluating and implementing cost effective, safe, evidenced based harm reduction and addictions treatment programs and services for Manitoban’s (sic),” the statement read.
“Manitoba Mental Health Wellness and Recovery is consulting Manitobans to develop an integrated, whole of government five year action plan road map. The action plan road map will provide strategic direction and address a spectrum of service planning, funding and policy work, will be driven by data and evidence and will take into account the unique characteristics of the Manitoba context and population.”
For Lee’s family, their hope is an inquest will help eliminate barriers for those struggling with addiction like Lee did, and ensure Lee’s death was not in vain.
“The goal of the inquest is not going to change anything that’s happened, but I think we’re motivated by Lee’s strength and courage to speak out about it and I hope that his words about the situation and him bringing forward some of the barriers and the troubles that people living with addictions are having, we’re hoping that this will bring some change and hopefully create easier access to assistance,” Packer said.
Packer says the pain of her brother’s death is still raw, but she wants to be vocal and advocate for change.
“Sometimes I feel angry, sometimes I’m overcome with sadness and grief, and other times I’m just really, really proud of Lee for trying so hard to overcome this and to reach out and get help.”
The office of the Chief Medical Examiner says it intends to have the request reviewed within the month.