Rhonda Pouliot used to call her 34-year-old son Chris Shea her “indoor cat.”
“Even though he was a pipefitter, he didn’t like to camp, he didn’t like being outside, which is the complete opposite of me, so he was my indoor cat,” said Pouliot.
Shea was hard-headed but had a really big heart, she said.
“He was an all-around good guy. A bit opinionated, kind of like his mother,” Pouliot said.
The two used to talk every day, so when one day last April he didn’t respond to her texts, she was immediately concerned.
Shea overdosed that day. He was taken to the hospital and six days later, Pouliot took him off life support.
“It’s exhausting because there’s a giant hole in all of our lives,” Pouliot.
That’s why Pouliot was at Victoria Park Thursday, to mark the annual International Overdose Awareness Day.
“I don’t want to be here — none of us wants to be here,” she said.
“You feel connected with all of the people here you share a common experience with, even though it’s a terrible experience.”
The data shows more and more families are being impacted by opioid overdoses. The most recent numbers from the province show the number of opioid-related deaths so far this year is up by more than nine per cent — 770 in the first five months of 2023 compared to 701 in the same period in 2022.
As the death toll rises, what’s being done to stop the cracks in the system?
Organizations like Moms Stop the Harm (MSTH) advocate for harm reduction strategies while the provincial government focuses on a treatment-first approach.
“As families, we hope that our loved ones will find wellness and recovery, but we have learned through our tragic losses that there is no recovery when you are dead,” said Petra Schultz with MSTH.
Increasing harm reduction looks like having drug testing facilities, regulated alternatives to the toxic supply of street drugs and more supervised consumption sites.
There are currently two 24-7 supervised consumption sites in Edmonton, at the George Spady Centre and the Royal Alexander Hospital. There are also five spots for supervised consumption at the Boyle McCauley Health Centre, open roughly 60 hours a week (during core clinic hours).
Schulz added more action is needed from all levels of government to deal with the housing crisis, “as it is impossible to seek treatment and get well when you are on the street.”
“Alberta’s government is supporting those suffering from the deadly disease of addiction in their pursuit of recovery through various measures including drug consumption sites, 11 new recovery communities and adding more than 10,000 addiction treatment spaces across the province,” said Hunter Baril, a spokesperson for the minister of mental health and addictions.
Though some of Edmonton’s supervised consumption sites were closed after the United Conservative Party took power in 2019, Baril says there hasn’t been a reduction in service space in Edmonton and the province continues to work with Boyle Street on bringing a service centre south of the river near Whyte Avenue.
As for the drug supply itself, Schulz says the increasing toxicity of the supply needs to be addressed before more people die.
“Numbers will continue to rise unless harm reduction access is expanded and the supply issue is addressed,” she said.
A new study shows an increased amount of fentanyl plus the combination of fentanyl and benzodiazepines in the street supply is a leading factor in opioid deaths.
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The study looked at “benzo-dope” cases — a combination of fentanyl and benzodiazepines (common examples would be Xanax and Valium). Researchers found that the presence of benzos in benzo-dope users exacerbated the potency of the fentanyl in the users system, making it more lethal.
Overall, opioid deaths in Alberta are up 5,000 per cent in the last 10 years, according to data from the study.
Chris Shea’s son looks at a memorial on International Overdose Awareness Day, Aug. 31, 2023.
Pouliot is part of a Facebook group for Albertans who have lost loved ones to overdoses. She said the group gains a new member every day.
Edmonton families gathered Thursday for a few reasons: to remember the people in their lives who have died due to overdose, to urge lawmakers to do something about a toxic supply of drugs running through the streets of cities across the country and to challenge the stigma associated with drug poisoning deaths.
“We try to ensure that we shake that stigma that’s attached to someone who died from drug poisoning. It’s very difficult because people have a certain idea or picture in their mind about what that kind of person looks like,” said Pouliot.
“We try really hard to get people to understand that these people are sons, daughters, parents, brothers, sisters, grandchildren, nieces and nephews.
“They belong to a family, a community — they’re somebody’s best friend, somebody’s partner.”