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2021 another grim year for drug overdoses in Saskatchewan

Click to play video: '2021 another grim year for drug overdoses in Saskatchewan' 2021 another grim year for drug overdoses in Saskatchewan
A total of 406 people in Saskatchewan died of suspected or confirmed overdoses during the first eleven months of 2021. It surpasses the all-time high of 328 recorded in 2020 – Dec 26, 2021

Saskatchewan has again broken its grim record with more than 400 people dying of confirmed or suspected drug overdoses during 2021.

Regina mother Heather Balfour lost her daughter to an overdose in 2019.

“She was just so musically talented,” Heather said about her daughter, Rachel Balfour.

Rachel loved dance, gymnastics and anything that brought her together with friends.

“Giving, caring — she was always looking after other people,” Heather said.

Read more: Regina police service makes public plea after 18 fatal suspected overdoses in 30 days

Her mom said Rachel showed signs of anxiety and depression in high school, but she was a bright student who loved gaming and coding.

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Rachel’s success in school led her to study computer science at the University of Alberta.

Classes were challenging — but still, there were no red flags, until February 2019, when the family hadn’t heard from her in a few days.

“The most devastating thing that can happen to anyone is the Regina Police Service showed up at our front door at our house to let us know she had been found dead in her university dorm room,” Heather said.

Coincidentally, Rachel’s dad and sister were also home that day, which Heather says is a blessing that the family was able to be together when the heartbreaking news was delivered.

“Just devastating — I mean, we just collapsed. When it comes completely out of the blue like that, it was just shocking and absolutely devastating.”

It took four and a half months for the family to learn that Rachel died of fentanyl poisoning.

Heather said the family had no idea Rachel used drugs.

“She was never sick, never missed school. There were just no signs,” Heather said.

“To this day we don’t know if she’d been a regular user (or) was this a one-off? I’ve imagined all kinds of things in my mind about what might have happened.”

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Throughout her experience, Heather has one message she wants to share with others.

“Don’t think it can’t happen to you because three years ago, I would’ve had no concept that this was a risk in my life.”

Similar grief may have been confronted by families of 406 people in Saskatchewan who died of suspected or confirmed overdoses during the first eleven months of 2021. It surpasses the all-time high of 328 recorded in 2020.

Click to play video: 'Saskatchewan joins Moms Stop The Harm to end stigma behind drug overdoses' Saskatchewan joins Moms Stop The Harm to end stigma behind drug overdoses
Saskatchewan joins Moms Stop The Harm to end stigma behind drug overdoses – Sep 1, 2021

The Saskatchewan minister of mental health and addictions said these numbers are troubling.

“It is a staggering figure and it is one that is of concern to us, of course, as the government and to me as the minister responsible for mental health and addictions,” Everett Hindley told Global News.

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Hindley also acknowledged that all communities are impacted by the crisis — from the major centres of Regina and Saskatoon to smaller communities as well as First Nations in northern and remote areas.

The province’s throne speech pledged to add 150 treatment spaces over the next three years.

Read more: Volunteers build 1,600 crosses to mark overdose deaths in Saskatchewan

The take-home naloxone program has expanded, along with a drug-checking strip project. In its most recent budget, the Saskatchewan government committed $458 million to addressing mental health and addictions.

But sometimes the real budget story is less about what was funded and more about what wasn’t.

Saskatoon’s Prairie Harm Reduction (PHR) was again denied provincial money for its supervised consumption site – a place where people can use drugs under the watch of medical staff. The government turned down PHR’s $1.3 million request.

“Yeah, I think it’s pretty clear which direction this government is comfortable heading in, which is hundreds of people dying,” PHR executive director Jason Mercredi said.

Hindley said the provincial government is awaiting findings from Saskatchewan’s drug task force, which will recommend future approaches to the drug crisis the province is facing.

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“That may include supervised consumption sites. It may involve the expansion into new areas that we had not gotten into, and perhaps expanding existing programs and supports as well,” Hindley said.

Hindley said the province is always looking at new and innovative ways to address the crisis.

The provincial government recently committed $300,000 to Muskwa Lake Wellness Camp, which provides land-based intervention to address alcoholism and overdose deaths in northern Saskatchewan communities.

This year, the Saskatoon Board of Police commissioners sought a report about decriminalizing personal possession of drugs and other ways to help people with addictions outside the criminal justice system.

“I think that’s important. That generally happens already, but there may be some gaps in the availability of some of those health-related services,” Saskatoon Police Chief Troy Cooper said.

About 20 per cent of calls to Saskatoon Police have some component of mental health or addictions.

“We saw that really begin to increase in 2020 and we’ve seen it exponentially increase in 2021,” Cooper said.

“Numbers of people dying from drug toxicity is increasing year after year after year,” Heather said.

Despite her loss, Heather considers herself fortunate – finding support among friends, family and her community.

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So she started a Regina chapter of Healing Hearts to help other families affected by the devastating effects of drug use. Meetings will continue in 2022 with the support group offering comfort when families need it most.

—with a file from David Giles 

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