A third of 2020's confirmed fatal drug overdoses happened in rural Saskatchewan

WATCH: The latest data from the provincial coroner's service shows about one-third of confirmed drug toxicity deaths in Saskatchewan took place outside the major cities.

Colleen Larocque says her grandchildren have been getting hassled at their small-town Saskatchewan school since their father died.

“Parents are referring to him as a drug addict,” Larocque told Global News of the type of commentary the young girl and boy are having to endure as they grieve.

“Not only have they lost their dad, but now that whole stigma is being attached to them,” Larocque said. “It’s cruel and it’s wrong, but I don’t know how to fix it other than we keep educating people.”

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Her 29-year-old son, Mitchell Sveinbjornson, was found dead on the morning of Aug. 22 at a friend’s home in Langenburg, a town of about 1,100 people located about 225 km northeast of Regina at the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border.

The night before, a group of them had done cocaine purchased from a Yorkton-area dealer and then went to bed, said Larocque, who was aware of her son’s recreational drug use.

Sveinbjornson was the only one who didn’t wake up. His mother said the toxicology report that followed showed fentanyl, carfentanil and methamphetamine in his system as well.

While the ensuing judgment in no way compares to the crippling as the loss of Sveinbjornson, Larocque said its reflects the attitudes that can lead people to use increasingly poisonous drugs in private.

“It can be your next-door neighbour,” she said. “It can be your father-in-law. It can be literally anybody in your life.”

According to the Saskatchewan Coroners Service, 379 people are believed to have died from drug overdoses in the province  in 2020. While 207 are still categorized as “suspected overdoses,” 172 have been confirmed.

Of them, 57 — or one third —  occurred in smaller cities, towns and villages and on reserves spread throughout the province.

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The Coroners report shows one confirmed fatal drug overdose last year in Weyburn, about 115 km southeast of Regina.

But less than a month into 2021, there have there have been two more, according to Weyburn Police Service Chief Jamie Blunden.

“If I were to put a bullet in a gun and spin they cylinder in the gun and put it to your head, are you willing to take that chance?” Bluden said. “That’s what we’re doing with some of these drugs that are out there.”

In a 36-hour period earlier in January, officers actually responded to three different medical-assist calls where they had to administer Narcan, the chief said. The antidote was only successful on one occasion.

Blunden said its not just medical-assist calls requiring naloxone that are becoming more common, pointing to more drugs in town.

Weyburn Police Service records show increases in both drug trafficking and drug possession charges year over year from 2019 to 2020, with the former up from six to 12 and the latter 16 to 39.

Blunden said it’s important for the police service to be open about what’s happening

“The drug scene here, compared to some of the bigger cities, it’s behind closed doors,” he said. “People aren’t 100 per cent aware of what’s going on.”

The Saskatchewan Union of Nurses (SUN) has been campaigning to draw attention to the drug crisis in rural Saskatchewan, producing documentaries on the various complex issues arising as a result of increasingly toxic drugs in small towns.

“Addiction touches everyone,” said Tracy Zambory, the president of SUN, who has been open about her own son’s battle with cocaine use.

“You’re laying yourself open bare. People can be very critical,” she said, adding that although her family has been very fortunate to all be together, the related struggles are ongoing.

“We have to suspend our moral indignation around what we view as harm reduction as a society,” Zambory said. “We need to start having that open, honest discourse.”

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Drug use in rural Saskatchewan isn’t going away, she said, emphasizing the numbers indicate its getting worse.

The province has budgeted hundreds of millions of dollars for mental health and addictions in the coronavirus pandemic. More recently, a mental health and addictions minister was appointed. Swift Current MLA Everett Hindley holds the portfolio, along with rural and remote health and seniors.

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Larocque said its important to recognize the nuances of the drug overdose crisis in rural Saskatchewan. It’s not just about more resources or even more education.

Larocque recognizes it would be difficult to bring mobile crisis services to the province’s many small communities. She knows it would be difficult, for so many reasons, to open a safe consumption site.

She thinks it would be worthwhile looking into an iteration of British Columbia’s Lifeguard App that people to allow people to activate an alarm when they’re using. If it doesn’t get turned off, emergency notifications go out.

“The idea of an app where you can call in, I think we could make something like that work,” she said.

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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