Saskatchewan overdose crisis reaches over 1,000 since 2020

Saskatchewan overdose crisis reaches over 1,000 since 2020

Zero to 60 in the blink-of-an-eye, that’s how, in Saskatchewan, Colleen LaRocque remembers her son, Mitchell Sveinbjornson.

Saskatchewan overdose victim

Colleen LaRocque’s son Mitchell Sveinbjornson died in August 2020 from an apparent overdose.

LaRocque gave birth to Sveinbjornson when she was 18-years-old. A proud smile can be seen on LaRoque’s face when she recollects about her son, who today would be 31-years-old.

The father of two didn’t make it to 30-years-old.

In August 2020, Sveinbjornson and three of his friends gained cocaine addictions. The four slept just fine after a night of partying, but Sveinbjornson was the only one that didn’t wake up that next morning.

He was 29.

Sveinbjornson is a statistic – one of about 1,000 individuals in Saskatchewan dead from drug overdose since 2020.

According to the Saskatchewan Coroners Service, Saskatchewan has set records in drug toxicity deaths year-over-year, since it began publicaly tracking figures in 2016. During the pandemic overdose deaths ballooned to 326 in 2020, a 147-death increase from 179 in 2019, then 410 in 2021.

This year’s pace has decreased, but Saskatchewan recorded 355 overdose deaths up until Oct. 31 of this year. They’re on pace to set yet another record with 426 in 2022.

In total, 1,091 individuals have died since the turn of the calendar in 2020.

LaRocque’s story is different to her and her family, and she believes she’s not alone.

117 communities in Saskatchewan have been impacted.

Regina led with 406 deaths since 2020, with 216 occurring in Saskatoon in the same period.

While 626 of the confirmed deaths happened in the two largest cities, the other 465 deaths are displaced across the province in smaller communities.

“This crosses all lines of demographics right across the province geographically and for the people themselves,” Clive Weighill Chief Coroner of the Service said.

“The main cohort for males is in and around the 35 to 45-year-old range. These are people that were very productive previously. And got involved in drugs and spiraled.”

Weighill said the largest group for those dying due to drug overdose is Caucasian, but the Indigenous population is, “overrepresented for the size of their population,” he said.

Weighill states one focus his teams have found. Those dying, are succumbing with multiple drugs in their bodies  – not a single substance.

This was also the case on the toxicology reports LaRocque saw for Sveinbjornson.

“He went and bought cocaine. Cocaine was the last thing on the toxicology report. It was fentanyl, carfentanil, meth, all those other things cut in,” she said.

The mother states she doesn’t believe he’d buy drugs from someone he didn’t know. She described him as street-smart but admitted there were bumps along the way.

Sveinbjornson’s death was a shock to the family because he was always helping his siblings with their addiction struggles.

Across Canada, overdose deaths increased by 91 per cent during the first two years of the pandemic compared to the two years before.

Canada recorded 15,134 “apparent overdose deaths,” according to the study from April 2020 to March 2022.

Marie Agioritis is the co-chair for the National Board of the organization and her son, Kelly, died of an overdose in January 2015.

Agioritis’ life changed.

“From there, I became enraged. I couldn’t understand why we didn’t know, what we didn’t know. Why there was no public outcry because I was seeing the numbers — I was looking at them going up,” she said.

After conducting media interviews provincially and nationally, Agioritis noticed she wasn’t alone.

“There happened to be a lot of other mothers doing the same thing I was and we connected from there, this small group of women meeting in Kelowna in 2016 and we started the national organization,” she said.

Agioritis said the original group of 12, “sadly,” has grown to tens of thousands of allies and thousands of members across the country.

She said the deaths symbolize for her, “the one thing that has been a constant and continuation.”

“The lack of effort to use evidence-based efforts to control this thing. It’s so political so am I surprised by the numbers? Not at all,” Agioritis said.

LaRocque is also a member of Moms Stop the Harm.

Agioritis said there isn’t much structure in terms of aftercare for families grieving from the death of their children.

Introducing Moms Stop the Harm gives those grieving someone to speak to that will understand them when it may feel like no one else around them can.

LaRocque dealt with this following the death of Sveinbjornson.

“It’s unfortunate. It’s still there. Your kids are always listening. Just choose your words wisely. They’re there. These overdoses are somebody’s parents, somebody’s children, somebody’s brother, somebody’s sister and it hurts,” she said.

For LaRocque, the death total symbolizes more than the on-paper statistics.

“[It’s] that too many of our kids are dying — This is stealing their lives. We shouldn’t be losing our children this way,” she said.

“It is real life.”

She said her family still struggles with the loss.

“We make sure that we make him part of our holiday celebrations. We talk a lot with his kids about him. Never be afraid to talk about your kids, whether they’re here or not.”

LaRocque pointed to more detox and rehab beds and making them affordable and attainable for anyone looking for help.

On the anniversary of her son’s death, LaRocque pays it forward to local businesses and she uses her platform as a voice in the community.

She carries naloxone wherever she goes and is a Provincial Volunteer First Responder.

There’s one thing that keeps her going which has a special connection to her late Mitchell.

“I have two beautiful grandchildren that keep me going.”

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