Opioid toxicity deaths have skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting calls for the flag at Parliament Hill to be lowered to half-mast in honour of those who have died.
That call is coming from Sen. Vernon White, a former Ottawa police chief, as well as family members who have lost loved ones to the ongoing opioid crisis.
“There are 30,000 reasons to half mast the Canadian Flag,” Steve Smith, who lost his step-daughter to an opioid overdose this past summer, told Global News in a statement.
“Because 30,000 victims should be remembered. Show the families they are not alone. That Canada does care. It may stop someone from doing drugs or motivate people in recovery.”
Between January 2016 and December 2021, there were more than 29,000 opioid toxicity deaths across the country, according to Health Canada. One day of flying the flag at half-mast in recognition of those lives, Smith said, “should not be too much to ask.”
“Families live with their loss every day,” the statement said.
While White and the Smith family have both had conversations with the government about the issue, their request has not yet been granted.
Their wish was, initially, to see the flag lowered on International Overdose Awareness Day. But that day passed on Aug. 31 — with no sign of the flag being lowered.
“I don’t hold a lot of hope,” White told Global News in an interview.
“I think, actually, that and many are afraid to talk about it.”
In a statement sent to Global News, Mental Health and Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennett’s office defended the decision not to lower the flag.
Government buildings across the country were flooded with purple light on Overdose Awareness Day, they said, and the minister spent the day meeting with families in Sudbury, Ont., who have been impacted by the issue.
“This trip was a heart-breaking reminder of the work that lies ahead in our fight to end this crisis and save more lives,” said a spokesperson for Bennett.
“We are grateful to all those who met with us, and to the heroic individuals and organizations across Canada who continue to fight for better services for people who use drugs in honour of all those lost to overdose.”
The government did not say whether it remains open to lowering the flag.
Opioid crisis worsening across Canada
In the years prior to the pandemic, there were between eight and 12 opioid toxicity deaths per day in the country, according to Health Canada. But in 2021, a staggering average of 21 people died from opioid toxicity each day.
That’s more than 7,500 people’s lives ending in 2021 alone, in what Health Canada has characterized as an “overdose crisis.”
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Relative to the year before, there was a 96 per cent increase in opioid-related deaths after the COVID-19 pandemic began – something Health Canada says may be attributable to a number of factors, including an “increasingly toxic drug supply, increased feelings of isolation, stress and anxiety, and changes in the availability or accessibility of services for people who use drugs.”
The opioid crisis is also swallowing different demographics. While Health Canada says young to middle-aged males continue to be the most heavily impacted, White warned that opioids are indiscriminate with their victims.
“I don’t think we understand completely who is being impacted by this. I mean, I know easily 10 or 15 families who have lost somebody as a result of an accidental drug overdose,” he said.
“We’re talking about average, normal families … a husband and wife in North Vancouver who both had good middle-income jobs and a child at home, who both overdosed after purchasing counterfeit drugs and (died) at night.”
Wendy Muckle is the CEO of Ottawa Inner City Health, an organization that provides health-care services to the homeless and street communities in Ottawa. It also operates a safe consumption site for people who use drugs.
As a community, she says, people who use drugs — and those who live and work alongside them — feel “very much alone.”
“It’s impossible, any day of the week, to not hear about somebody else who has died … people who you have known for many, many years and know extremely well,” Muckle said.
“We’re in a war inside this whole other world, and nobody else really knows that we’re at war…. We’re grieving all of the time, and nobody seems to be grieving with us.”
Lowering flag is the minimum — but a start
Chad Bouthillier works at the safe consumption site that Ottawa Inner City Health operates. He supports calls to lower the flag as a symbolic move in support of those impacted by the opioid crisis — but he warned that the gesture alone won’t solve the problem.
“Lowering a flag is not going to stop people dying. I think a lot of things have to happen,” he said.
“And I know it’s difficult to get all those things rolling.”
Addiction, Bouthillier said, comes from “pain.” Abuse, mental health issues and housing instability all contribute to the kinds of pain people feel. Drug use, he added, fills that “void.”
“Once they get on to a certain type of drug, such as (an) opioid, it becomes a physical need where their body depends to be on that drug,” Bouthillier explained.
That’s why abstinence-only approaches don’t work, according to Bouthillier, and harm-reduction approaches need to be prioritized.
There are a number of things the government can do to start to reduce harm and tackle the opioid crisis, Muckle said.
Decriminalizing simple possession of drugs would be a good first step, according to Muckle, as well as ensuring housing is available to all Canadians. Providing access to a safer supply of drugs could also help reduce the harm caused by the opioid crisis, she added.
“It’s very hard for the government to sort of swallow that whole long list of demands,” Muckle said.
“But unless we can actually make all of those changes happen, we’re not going to get ahead of this. And that’s the problem … everybody is trying their best and everybody thinks that they’re doing what they can do — but we’re actually not making progress.”
As for the push to have the flag lowered, Smith and White aren’t relenting. It’s about awareness, White said.
“It could happen to anybody. And the families that I know, they were just like me, (it) could have been me just as easily, could have been my kids,” he said.
“So I think that’s the recognition we have to bring home to people.”
Meanwhile, as advocates await government action, more and more Canadians continue to die from opioid toxicity with each passing day.
“It’s hard to imagine any other condition in Canada where 21 people a day were dying — every single day — and the government and the public were not taking it seriously,” Muckle said.
“When you think that 21 people per day in this country are dying from an entirely preventable situation, it’s frankly disgraceful.”
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