Three mothers stricken by the opioids crisis have gathered for a question-and-answer session in the brightly lit meeting room of a Toronto housing co-op. Mary Byberg lost a daughter to a drug overdose. Ann Murray lost a son. Sheila Jennings has a son who has overdosed several times, coming close to death.
They have come out on a frosty evening because they want the world to know what the crisis is doing to Canadian families. As they speak, angry words tumble out. They have written letters to their MPs, waved placards in marches or baked cakes to raise money to help drug users. Nothing seems to change.
More than 9,000 people died from overdoses across Canada in the two years leading up to June, 2018. In Ontario, 629 died in the first six months of 2018, up 15 per cent from the same period in 2017.
Government leaders have given earnest speeches about the gravity of the epidemic, which is killing an average of 11 people a day. Health officials have issued warnings about the dangers of the synthetic opioid fentanyl, and spent millions on mental-health and addiction treatment. An Angus Reid poll in February found that 41 per cent of Canadians consider opioids a crisis or a serious problem, up from 33 per cent 14 months earlier.
And yet relatives of victims complain there has been nothing like the all-out effort that came with the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2003, when Ontario declared a provincial emergency. Nor, for that matter, has there been anything like the angry mass campaign led by the gay community in North America during the AIDS crisis. This month, the Ontario government announced it would stop funding some safe-injection sites. Ms. Byberg and Ms. Jennings joined a demonstration last week at Queen’s Park, the seat of the Ontario government, to protest against the cuts.
“We are so desperate to get them to listen,” Ms. Jennings says, “but they’re not listening.”
The three mothers want to break through the wall of ignorance and indifference. That’s why they agreed to answer questions in public about this most personal of subjects. But it is exhausting and painful. They say that drug users like their children are often shunned, misunderstood and blamed for their own fate. Along with their grief, Ms. Murray says, “we are dealing with guilt and shame.”
Ms. Byberg says she found herself in tears while watching the 2014 drama The Normal Heart on a plane. Mark Ruffalo plays an AIDS activist who erupts with fury at all the deaths he sees around him. “That is what I feel every single day,” she says. “I just feel such despair that, you know, we have over 4,000 Canadians a year dying in this crisis and a lot of them are very young people with their whole lives ahead of them.”
Her daughter Jenny died of a fentanyl overdose in the small hours of Nov. 1, 2016, weeks after her 30th birthday. Ms. Byberg describes her as a kind, sweet, vivacious woman who went to her punk-rock wedding in a leopard dress. “I adored her. I still adore her. I miss her every day. It’s brutal living without her – brutal.”
She has written to her MP, her MPP, her city councillor, the Premier, and the provincial and federal ministers of health. Her message: Please treat this as the public-health emergency it is. Please step up funding for safe injection and other methods of averting overdose.
Ms. Murray’s son turned to drugs after struggling with anxiety and depression. She had to call an ambulance three times in his final month. She tried to get the hospital to admit him for treatment, she says, but doctors just “revived him and sent him home with his mom.”
When he overdosed for the last time at her house in Burlington, Ont., she found him unconscious and tried to bring him back with chest compressions. That was a year and a half ago. Since then, she has been lobbying authorities to do more to save lives. Burlington, an hour west of Toronto, has no safe-injection site, but hospital officials said taking harm-reduction measures was up to the community, not the hospital. She wrote to Ontario’s health minister, but got only a form letter directing her to the local health network.
“Why is this resting on me and the other moms," Ms. Murray asks. "Where are our leaders?” For that matter, Ms. Jennings says, where is the public? She sent around a flyer to spread the word about their Q&A session, which took place last month. “Join the conversation as we unite to combat the opioids crisis through compassion and education,” it said, under the banner of Moms Stop the Harm, a countrywide lobby group.
Just half a dozen people showed up, two of them journalists.