An average of 11 Canadians a day die of drug overdoses. A shelf full of studies lays out the depth of the crisis, which has spread from Vancouver Island to Newfoundland.
But for an up-close look at its impact, come to the Tim Hortons in downtown Brantford.
The opioid crisis has hit Brantford hard. The Southwestern Ontario municipality 100 kilometres down the highway from Toronto had the highest hospitalization rate for opioid overdose of any city in the province in 2017, though officials are working hard on solutions and the numbers were down last year. The problem is worst in Brantford’s historic centre, where drug users and homeless residents come for its flophouses, shelters, clinics and coffee shops.
The 24-hour Tim Hortons at 53 Dalhousie St. has become their informal clubhouse, a place to get out of the cold, chat with friends and buy and use drugs. The men’s room has a couple of dozen spent needles in the yellow safe-disposal bin on the wall. Last year, police responded to 396 calls in the area of Dalhousie and Queen Streets, the Tims corner, most for things such as trespassing and public intoxication but five for overdoses – none of them, fortunately, fatal.
As college students and office workers line up for double-doubles and potato wedges, the regulars fill a line of booths next to the washroom at the back until servers block it off with a barrier at 9 p.m. Many come in and out of Tim Hortons all day. Some stay all night, trying to avoid the harried servers, who periodically urge them to move along. The owner of the Tim Hortons, Keri Korfmann, says staff try to be welcoming to everyone as long as they don’t make trouble.
Over the course of seven hours on a recent Friday night, as temperatures dipped to minus 21, a dozen regulars took a seat at a corner table to share their stories.
Just about all of them knew someone who has dropped dead of an overdose. Many had overdosed themselves. Several had saved people from probable death by giving them naloxone, the overdose-reversing medication that is being handed out at pharmacies and hospitals.
Their accounts testify not just to the toll of the opioid crisis, but to the complex ways drug or alcohol addiction is intertwined with the effects of trauma and childhood abandonment.
Justin McLean, a powerfully built 34-year-old, has a teardrop inked on his cheek in memory of a friend who overdosed and died last fall. He has lost count of how many people he knows who have OD’ed. He says he went under himself about a year ago, waking up on a bathroom floor and being carted off in an ambulance. People are afraid of him, he says, because he talks to ghosts on the street.
Ashleigh Skater, 26, wept as she told of how her boyfriend went to jail for dealing drugs, leaving her to raise a baby daughter. She says she has overdosed on two occasions, only to be brought back to life. “I died twice,” she said.
Darryl Sault, a grizzled 54-year-old, spends his nights visiting Tim Hortons, crashing at friends’ houses or sleeping in a tent down by the Grand River when it’s warmer. He helped save his daughter’s boyfriend when he collapsed at a local house in November. Mr. Sault gave him shots of naloxone nasal spray. He took a sudden gulp of air – Mr. Sault imitates the sound – and started breathing again.
At around 11 p.m., Shawna Styres, 18, took a seat and accepted a hot coffee. She wore camo-patterned pants and hoop earrings in the shape of hearts. She lost her good friend Lea to overdose in September. It was fentanyl – the synthetic opioid, many times more potent than heroin, that is killing the bulk of overdose victims. “The fentanyl is taking everybody,” she said.
Ms. Styres says she started using painkillers when she was 13 or 14, a few years after her mother left the family. She moved up to cocaine, crystal meth and more – “chasing the dragon,” as she calls it. She says she has been off drugs for the past month, but still has cravings every day. Her sparkly painted nails are bitten to stubs.
Raven Dargie, 21, stopped by to talk at 2 a.m. The chattering teenagers who came in and out of Tim Hortons through the night from a nearby dance had gone home. Servers were wiping the counters and seats. Only 10 or 15 people lingered.
Ms. Dargie had been sitting for hours with her boyfriend, listening to country-music videos on her laptop. They came to Tim Hortons because her boyfriend’s mother kicked them out and they had nowhere else to go. She said she has been homeless off and on since age 14. Her mother was addicted to painkillers. She herself has struggled with alcoholism. She has scars on her wrist from a recent suicide attempt. A friend of hers drowned in the Grand when he got high and went swimming, another victim of the “horrendous” drug crisis.
Yet she is not giving up. A tattoo on her forearm reads, “Everything happens for a reason.” Another on her collar bone shows a simple punctuation mark: the semicolon. She explained that a semicolon on the page means a thought is not quite complete. “It’s just a reminder that my story is not over and it does get better.”