The crisis hitting small-town Ontario

Posted on February 24, 2024 in Governance Debates

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Editorials
February 24, 2024.   By Star Editorial Board

Communities across the province are grappling with overdoses and appealing for more resources to deal with the crisis.

Sixty minutes.

That’s all it took to send 13 overdose victims to hospital. And it didn’t happen in downtown Toronto or Vancouver.

It was in downtown Belleville, which on the afternoon of Feb. 6 became the scene of a horror movie. Multiple people collapsed to the ground within feet of each other, and the situation quickly became so dire that police advised residents to stay away from the downtown core.

Within 24 hours, 17 overdose victims had been transported to hospital, and by the morning of Feb. 8, the number had reached 23.

Laced drugs are suspected, with Hastings Prince Edward Public Health reporting last week that a recent sample of street opioids revealed the presence of benzodiazepines and the animal tranquilizer xylazine.

The overdoses themselves revealed something else: Big cities aren’t the only communities with a big problem. Sure, the sights and sounds of homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse are ubiquitous in Toronto and Vancouver, as are the cries for a solution.

But smaller communities also have a big problem — bigger, arguably, than anything the major population centres have thus far experienced. Yet their cries often go unheard, at least until an event like the Belleville overdose crisis forces us to listen.

It’s not just Belleville either. At the beginning of February, the Kingston public health authority reported a 15 per cent increase in overdoses over the previous week. And in January, Waterloo Region issued a community alert after four people died in one week.

Nor is it just this year. In November, Brantford, one of Ontario’s hardest hit cities, issued a public safety alert after reporting 27 overdoses in the first 27 days of that month.

And in October, it was Northumberland County’s turn. Better known for lazy, hazy days of summer spent at the cottage, the county issued an overdose alert on Oct. 24 due to a rise in suspected drug poisonings.

Many other southern Ontario communities are experiencing similar crises, but that’s nothing compared to what’s happening in the North. According to the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network, the opioid death rate is three times higher in northern than southern Ontario.

The network notes that the North faces some unique challenges, including geographical isolation and a large Indigenous population struggling with social inequities and intergenerational trauma. But it also shares many other challenges with smaller communities across the province.

Chief among them is a lack of resources. While we often hear complaints about the lack of sufficient treatment and harm reduction facilities in large cities like Toronto, smaller communities are lucky if they have any at all.

Even a mid-size city like Belleville lacks some relatively inexpensive, life-saving measures. A drug testing device might have prevented the recent overdose crisis, yet public health officials have said there are none at all in the region.

Given the lack of resources, people are faced with a stark choice: Forego care altogether, or travel to other towns. And many of those who choose the latter option eventually end up in the former camp, as the costs of travel can be prohibitive.

Many also end up unhoused, though in small and rural communities people often choose couch surfing or living in abandoned buildings over sleeping on the street. Homelessness therefore becomes invisible, and reduces the likelihood of small communities receiving support.

The lack of secure housing in turn reduces the likelihood that people will be able to access and maintain mental health and substance abuse treatments, even if they’re available. And as long as they’re not available, events like the recent one in Belleville — and in Kingston, Waterloo, Brantford, Northumberland and numerous others — are sure to repeat.

On Feb. 8, Belleville Mayor Neil Ellis declared a mental health, addiction and homelessness emergency, and asked the province for $2 million for a planned health and social services hub. On Tuesday, Ellis said the province told him Belleville will “have to wait,” though it did provide $216,000 to increase the number of first responders and outreach staff.

That might help Belleville to react to future crises, but it won’t prevent them from occurring. If such crises are to be averted rather than merely addressed, all levels of government must commit to proactive solutions, targeted to the needs of each community.

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