Jason Mercredi, who oversees Saskatchewan’s only safe consumption site, is disappointed in the province’s response to the unprecedented number of opioid related deaths in Saskatchewan.
“I think it is pretty clear that this is not just a health care issue anymore,” said Mercredi, the Executive Director of Prairie Harm Reduction (PHR) in Saskatoon.
“When you are looking at record overdose deaths and the Saskatchewan Health Authority hasn’t held a single press conference on 230 people dying between January and August, that tells you something.”
The 230 deaths Mercredi mentioned do not include overdose deaths that went unreported.
Jenny Churchill, a harm reduction advocate, lost her son to fentanyl poisoning two years ago. She was put on a task force by Saskatchewan Health Minister Jim Reiter that focused on providing Naloxone kits to people discharged from the hospital after an overdose.
“It took one whole year to be able to provide that service,” Churchill said.
“When the politicians are making decisions that should be made by doctors and experts we get slowed down by bureaucracy and that’s one of the reasons why so many people are dying.”
Mercredi and Churchill say the two emergency care facilities proposed by the Sask. Party will not cut it when it comes to addictions services in Saskatchewan.
“[The Sask. Party] doesn’t ever really talk about the addiction side of it,” said Churchill.
“They’ll talk more about mental health because they know that resonates more with their voter base.”
Churchill believes the facilities would still alienate those who would use a safe consumption site.
“Our folks aren’t going to go to a new lesser emergency centre,” Mercredi said. “They’re going to be flatlining, so they’ll go to the hospital emergency rooms.”
Mercredi requested funding earlier in the year from the Saskatchewan government for Prairie Harm Reduction and was denied. His needs from the government remain the same, with the Sask. Party remained the governing party after Monday’s provincial election.
“I have been really clear with everybody,” said Mercredi. “I need $1.3 million to run our consumption site 24/7, and we need the SHA to start holding press conferences on overdose deaths and informing the public as to what’s happening.”
Premier Scott Moe wants to focus on drug prevention.
“We do need to have a very serious conversation about how we are stopping these drugs from coming into our communities,” Moe said in an interview with CTV on Oct. 20.
To Churchill, this is an unacceptable approach.
“Moe made it a police issue which then criminalizes [drug addiction] which is absolutely everything harm reduction disagrees with,” said Churchill. “He didn’t speak to it as a healthcare issue which he should have, because it is a health care issue.”
NDP candidate Nicole Saraurer said dealing with crime related to drugs from the root of the problem will be what makes the biggest difference.
“We have a government right now that refuses to acknowledge or address the growing rate of crystal meth addiction in our province,” Saraurer said in the same CTV interview on Oct. 20.
Before his party lost the election, NDP leader Ryan Meili said the NDP government would fund PHR. Mercredi does not care where the funding comes from at this point.
Mercredi said he has felt the support from the Saskatoon community.
“We’ve had thirty businesses run fundraisers for us,” said Mercredi. “These are restaurants for the most part that are struggling to keep their staff employed who are running fundraisers for us. How is this not a government priority, a SHA priority?”
Churchill said it is because they are allowed silence.
“They will never come out and proactively talk about this crisis or share information on their own,” said Churchill. “The only thing you’ll ever hear from them is in response to a media question.”
Saskatchewan Health Minister Jim Reiter commented on the opioid crisis in an interview with Global Regina in August.
“We’re very concerned about it,” Reiter said.
Reiter’s emphasis was on the money already put into mental health and addictions services, including the crystal meth treatment centre planned for Estevan.
“We’re pretty much the laughingstock of the country when it comes to the opioid response,” said Mercredi. “And it’s because the Saskatchewan Health Authority won’t take the lead on it.
“This is in every community in the province — 230 deaths. They have friends and family.”
Attempts were made to get current comments from officials, but they were unavailable due to election writ restriction.