Christine Dobbs still misses seeing her son Adam Watson come home from work with his signature smile, nearly eight years after he died from a fentanyl overdose. She sits at her kitchen table, covered in articles documenting Manitoba’s opioid crisis since 2016 and photos of Adam and others who have died from drug use.
Adam’s death is just one of many such losses. In 2022, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner reported 418 drug-related deaths in Manitoba. This year, fatal overdoses spiked in May, reaching 44 deaths. That’s the highest it’s been since August 2021, when 52 people died from using drugs.
Resources for those struggling with substance use have not improved, although there is wider awareness of the issue, Dobbs says.
“For many of us back in those days, we didn’t even know what (fentanyl or OxyContin) was,” Dobbs says. “When Adam came to me finally, we knew something was wrong. He sat down with me, and he said, ‘Mom, I’m in serious trouble. I’m addicted to OxyContin.’”
Fentanyl, a potent opioid generally used as a pain reliever in hospitals, can be 20 to 40 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine, according to Health Canada.
Adam died one month after his 27th birthday. Before his death, Dobbs and her husband Lang Watson had tried every available option to help him overcome his addiction that started with OxyContin. When the price of the drug increased, he turned to fentanyl, which was cheaper.
Adam tried getting help at places like Main Street Project and Rapid Access to Addictions Medicine (RAAM) clinics. He had to go through multiple medical tests and a twoweek waiting period, during which he had to phone in every day before being accepted into treatment.
Dobbs says there are still holes in the system that prevent people from recovering.
“The best thing we can do to save people is to not make them wait when they ask for help,” she says. “You can’t force anyone into treatment of any kind.”
Dobbs wants to see more wraparound supports and resources for Manitobans looking to reduce or stop their substance use.
Dobbs believes healthcare cuts from the previous Progressive Conservative government are part of the problem and hopes to see the newly elected New Democratic Party follow through on their promises to increase funding across healthcare services.
Bernadette Smith, the new provincial minister for housing, addictions and homelessness, says the government is committed to opening a safe-consumption site.
“We see less resources being put into combating what we’re seeing happening,” Smith, the Point Douglas MLA since 2017, says. “I think taking a harm-reduction approach (is) a proven strategy. That’s what saves lives, and we need to continue working toward that.”
Smith has visited other provinces, including Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia, to learn about their safe-consumption site programs.
Between 2017 and June 2023, 39 Canadian safe-consumption sites across the country saw 4.3 million visitors. In the same period, these sites monitored roughly 49,000 overdoses and drug-related medical emergencies with zero reported deaths, according to data from the Government of Canada.
Safe-consumption sites provide safer places for people who use drugs by giving them access to sterile equipment, like needles, which decreases the spread of blood-borne infections, such as HIV, hepatitis B and C and other bacteria that can cause heart infections.
They also offer mental-health, medical and social services, and Health Canada says they help reduce public drug use, discarded drug equipment and the strain on emergency medical services.
Manitoba currently has no permanent supervised-consumption site.
Sunshine House’s Mobile Overdose Prevention Site (MOPS) has provided life-saving care for Winnipeggers who use drugs, but their funding may be running out. This year, the organization put out a call for donations to try and raise $275,000 to keep the RV running until the end of March.
Since it opened last October, the RV has seen 14,000 visitors and completed 5,000 drug tests using their mobile mass spectrometer, which analyzes drug samples. A total of 19 overdoses have been reversed there.
Smith says safe-consumption sites do not enable drug users and instead help them make connections to start recovering from addiction. She wants to see aftercare, including general healthcare services, mental-health counselling and access to safe housing, improved with an increase to funding for these services.
“We want to ensure ... when someone comes out, there’s supports to ensure that they’re successful,” Smith says.
Stigma and housing issues also contribute to the opioid crisis in the province, Smith and Dobbs say.
Dobbs believes that if her son did not have family support, he would have become homeless, because “all his money went toward buying and finding the drugs.”
She struggled to talk with others about the cause of his death because of the stigma and misconceptions about drug use in 2016.
“Stigma is the number-one issue. Even now, some people will just say things like, ‘Well, it was their choice.’ It’s not their choice. It’s not a moral failing,” Dobbs says. “It’s a health issue. They didn’t choose to become addicted to the drug.”
Dobbs found support from groups like Moms Stop the Harm. She says being able to talk with others who have gone through similar experiences was an important part of her healing.
She wants to prevent others from experiencing what she describes as the worst pain anyone could go through by advocating for safe supply and getting youth involved in discussing the issue.
Dobbs says the hardest part now is thinking about all the things Adam is missing out on, like his sister’s wedding, and celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas without him.
The pain of losing a child to drug use never leaves you, she says.
Published in Volume 78, Number 07 of The Uniter (October 26, 2023)