‘We’re talking about children’: Manitoba on track to set record for drug-related deaths

‘This epidemic crosses all walks of life, and all social status so it’s every demographic is impacted,’ says advocate.

In Manitoba, overdoses in the first six months of 2021 have put the province on pace to set a record for drug-related deaths and advocates are saying this crisis could be made less deadly.

The first half of 2021 saw 199 people die drug-related deaths according to the office of the chief medical examiner and if the pace keeps up, advocates say Manitoba will surpass last year’s death total of 374.

Arlene Last-Kolb is co-founder of Overdose Awareness Manitoba. She says she isn’t surprised by the numbers.

“There’s many reasons that I’m not surprised, one of the reasons I’m not surprised is because of Covid, the effects it’s had on people that use substances,” said Last-Kolb. “There’s been an increase in use in all substances. Also too, we know that fentanyl is still on the street and until we address that we are not going to be able to stop what’s happening here. Most of these deaths are from a toxic street supply so until we actually have a conversation about that, the numbers will keep rising.

“I’m always here to remind people that we’re talking about loved ones. We’re talking about children.”

Last-Kolb says safe supply and safe injection sites are a few ways the deaths can be reduced.

“I know for a fact that we need a safe consumption site downtown, it’s as plain as the nose on your face. I would like to see safe consumption sites all over Manitoba but what we could do is we could start with our downtown area, we could get ourselves a mobile unit which means we could mobilize ourselves as the need comes up,” she said.

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Mitch Bourbonniere is a community advocate who works with numerous organizations within the city of Winnipeg including the Downtown Community Safety Partnership.

“You know in this last two years of this pandemic, again it’s probably related but may have exploded anyway, we’ve just seen an explosion of drug use, of injection drug use,” said Bourbonniere. “The needles were picking up you know, we’ve watched people inject in front of us on the streets. It’s absolutely heartbreaking.”

He agrees that a safe injection site is needed.

“I absolutely believe we need safe, well-trained, well-staffed safe injection sites. People are doing it in front of us anyway and it’s heartbreaking, I’d rather them be in a safe place where they can be looked after, cared for harm reduction in a safe way, but then also there’s the people there to talk to the folks about getting help and getting treatment right there rather than folks doing this in back alleys,” Bourbonniere said.


Many of the deaths include fentanyl. In 2020, 196 deaths had fentanyl as a contributing factor while already in 2021 there have been 117.

While he sees many drugs on the streets, Bourbonniere said these drug-related deaths come from all different walks of life.

“This epidemic crosses all walks of life, and all social status so it’s every demographic is impacted, every, the families I’ve gotten to know that have lost a loved one to overdose come from all walks of life and this can happen to anyone.

“Again no one chooses to be addicted to intravenous drugs like this is a horrible condition to deal with, that kind of addiction and it can happen to anyone so we should as a province collectively be concerned about this,” he said.

APTN News reached out to the City of Winnipeg and the province for comment on the topic of drug-related deaths but did not hear back before this story was published.

Last-Kolb lost her own son to a drug overdose in 2014 and says she will continue to work to stop these preventable deaths from happening.

“I have to show the importance that this is happening all over Manitoba, that every day I hear of more and more people losing their children and when I say children these are adults, these are all ages but they are always children,” she said.

“They’ll always be children to me so as a mother I will never stop advocating for what I believe will save lives. These are preventable deaths, you’re talking about a toxic street supply so we know that when people are offered safer substances, they’ll take it.”

Reporter / Winnipeg

Darrell is a proud member of Peguis First Nation in Manitoba. He is a graduate of the television program from Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in Edmonton. He is returning to APTN after having completed an internship with us in 2018 and a brief stop as a reporter in B.C. in 2019.