At the majority of funerals, there are significantly more mourners than deceased individuals.
However, during a memorial ceremony in downtown Edmonton on Monday, the balance seemed to be at risk of shifting in the opposite direction.
Dozens of people crowded into a small courtyard to grieve 118 people who died between the end of June and the first week of October.
Small framed photographs of the people who died filled several tables, two rows deep. The deceased were all members of the Boyle Street Community Services community — many were homeless when they died.
Lina Meadows, senior manager of adult programming for Boyle Street, stated that a greater number of men lost their lives compared to women, and there was a disproportionate representation of Indigenous individuals among the deceased. The individuals who passed away ranged from their 70s to as young as 14 years old.
Meadows stated that an adolescent boy, aged 14, passed away due to drug poisoning and was discovered unconscious outdoors.
Meadows mentioned that the majority of the fatalities resulted from opioid poisoning, but various interconnected societal problems are also negatively impacting the individuals who rely on Boyle Street’s assistance.
Meadows stated that a large number of people are tragically losing their lives due to the harmful drugs being distributed. However, there are also cases where individuals are dying because they lack proper shelter and access to necessary resources, which is a consequence of homelessness.
Boyle Street holds a memorial each quarter to remember community members who have died. Meadows said this past quarter has been the deadliest period since they began keeping data on the deaths in 2020.
Meadows mentioned that the count of 118 individuals represents only the ones within their knowledge.
She mentioned the difficulty in monitoring the outcomes for individuals who have utilized Boyle Street’s services. However, she also mentioned that the Edmonton Police Service has made efforts to assist by informing Boyle Street whenever their officers respond to the death of a community member.
Meadows felt concerned while being close to the tables that were already full of pictures of deceased individuals, as he feared that the upcoming quarter would be even more distressing. In this month alone, there have been 53 reported deaths by October 29th.
Meadows expressed concern about the arrival of lower temperatures as well. Last year, there was an alarming increase in the number of fatalities due to fires in encampments.
She emphasized that merely expanding the city’s shelter system is insufficient to rescue individuals. She also highlighted the importance of having additional housing options with accompanying support, stating that housing alone does not provide a complete solution.
Provincial data on substance use deaths shows that the proportion of people dying of opioid poisoning in public spaces sharply increased in the second quarter of 2023.
Between 2018 and quarter one of 2023, the proportion of fatal opioid poisonings that happened in public ranged from as low as seven per cent to a high of 27 per cent in the third quarter of 2021.
In the first quarter of 2023, the percentage dropped to 23%. However, it increased to 38% in the second quarter, almost reaching the same level as the 40% of deaths that occurred in the deceased individual’s private residence. Historically, most opioid deaths have taken place in such private residences.
Attempting to create a positive impact
When Shanell Twan looks at the pictures of the deceased, she recognizes individuals she went to elementary school with, people who were family friends and neighbors, and even clients she interacted with during her time as a staff member at Boyle Street.
Twan, who is an advocate with the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs and the Alberta Alliance Who Educates and Advocates Responsibly, stated that we are currently facing a severe crisis of toxic drug poisoning.
The UCP government has increasingly moved toward a recovery-oriented model, and away from harm reduction measures — investing millions in opening recovery communities, while the numbers of supervised consumption sites in the province has declined.
Twan suggested that the most effective approach to preserving lives would involve enhancing the availability of secure consumption facilities and establishing a secure and viable alternative source. This way, individuals would not resort to consuming drugs that may have been contaminated with fentanyl or other illegal substances.
“We’re all out here trying to make a difference. But real difference, real action could come from the government and that would be in line with supervised consumption sites that provide for inhalation, safe supply,” she said.
She expressed that advocates, front-line workers, and grassroots organizations are exerting maximum effort to assist individuals, yet it remains insufficient.
In Monday’s speech from the throne, the province expressed its intention to progress with establishing more recovery communities and enacting legislation that might enable compulsory recovery treatment for individuals.