A look at the opioid crisis in Thunder Bay

Dec 6, 2023

A recent analysis article authored by Christian Paas-Lang and published by CBC News examined the ongoing opioid crisis in Thunder Bay, the Ontario city with the highest per capita opioid-related deaths. While 2023 data has not yet been released, in the Thunder Bay District Health Unit, there were 114 suspected drug-related deaths were reported in 2022, which corresponds to a two-fold increase compared to 2018.  Likewise, in Ontario, the number of overdose-related deaths has nearly doubled from under 1,600 in 2018 to nearly 3,000 in 2021. What’s more, Thunder Bay does not currently have a supervised consumption site. 

In their interview with CBC News, paramedics Jameson Shortreed and Kescia Yeomans, employed by Superior North EMS, said that over the past five years, they have witnessed a five-fold increase in the number of opioid-related overdose calls.

“For me, it’s disappointing and it’s frustrating because you can see what the solution would be and action [is] not being taken,” said Yeomans. Moreover, Shortreed added that Thunder Bay desperately needs more detox beds. “I’ve called down to our detox facility numerous times,” he said. “Once, maybe twice in my career I think I’ve actually gotten a spot for somebody there.”

However, Juanita Lawson, CEO of NorWest Community Health Centres, said providing more beds is not an effective solution if there are no treatment services provided. “Treatment is necessary, but if we continue to not offer the services people need to stay alive, why have treatment beds if people are dying as a result of a toxic drug supply?” she said. Further, Lawson noted that advocating for safe supply has been challenging due to the political backlash against it by Conservative politicians.

According to Carolyn Karle, a Thunder Bay resident who lost her daughter to opioid addiction, governments need to open far more treatment centres and provide funding for services that support addicted people throughout the stages of recovery.

“This is a health care crisis, this is a social crisis, but it’s being borne on the backs of the municipal property taxpayer,” said municipal council member Kristen Oliver. “We continue to talk about Thunder Bay like it’s the only place that this is happening, which I find is a disservice to the rest of the province and this country. Because this is a provincial problem, this is a national problem.”

While Mayor Ken Boshcoff said that a combination of safer supply and treatment is needed, he argued that Thunder Bay is currently “overwhelmed” by an influx of people trying to access city services.

“Over the coming months it will require us to really re-think our capacity and how we either increase the capacity or enlist more support, and that’s where the federal and provincial governments [come in],” Boshcoff said. “We need them all.”