Canadian True Crime - 143 The Truth About Canada's Opioid Crisis—Part 1

Episode Date: August 29, 2023

[ Part 1 of 3 ] Through the stories of four young Canadians from completely different walks of life—who all met the same devastating fate, we explore how Canada got itself into the mess that is the ...opioid crisis. Sophie Breen, Seth MacLean, Skye Crassweller and Morgan Goodridge were among the almost 40,000 Canadians who have died of toxic drug poisoning since 2016. Most of these deaths were accidental, caused by street drugs contaminated with deadly illegal fentanyl. In this series, we learn what their families are saying about the current response to the opioid crisis, as we explore answers to urgent questions:How do we stop the steadily rising drug poisoning deaths?And why are so many Canadians seeking oblivion to escape from their pain in the first place?Special thanks to the families of Sophie Breen, Seth MacLean and Morgan Goodridge.Resources for those affected by the Opioid Crisis:Provincial Resources - Moms Stop the HarmOpioid Resources - Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction About Opioids - Canada.caMore information:Sophie Breen - Our family member died of a fentanyl overdose. We don’t think the man who supplied the drugs should go to prison by Mary Fairhurst Breen and Emma Feltes, Globe & MailSeth MacLean died in July. Authorities buried him weeks later without telling his family by John Lancaster, CBC newsCanadian True Crime donates monthly to help those facing injustice.In honour of August 31, International Overdose Awareness day, we’ve donated to Moms Stop the Harm.Release schedule: Parts 2 and 3 will be released September 5 and 12.Listen ad-free and early: CTC premium feeds are available on Amazon Music (included with Prime), Apple Podcasts, Patreon and Supercast, giving you access 24 hours early without the ads. Please note: case-based episodes will always be available to all, we will never put them exclusively behind a paywall.Full credits, resources, information sources and music credits:See the page for this episode at Hosted on Acast. See for more information.

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Starting point is 00:00:00 Canadian True Crime is a completely independent production, funded mainly through advertising. You can listen to Canadian True Crime ad-free and early on Amazon Music included with Prime, Apple podcasts, Patreon, and Supercast. The podcast often has disturbing content and course language. It's not for everyone. Please take care when listening. This is part one of a three-part series with each episode to be released a week apart. Unlike our usual series, this isn't just one story. It's a multifaceted exploration involving a number of families. This is an extremely important subject, so these episodes are also densely packed with relevant
Starting point is 00:00:40 and interesting connections to Canadian history that you probably weren't aware of. We've put a lot of work into making this series as engaging and concise as possible, but it's also quite heavy going. So please know it's okay to take a little breather between each part if you need to. If you or someone you know has been affected by the opioid crisis, help is available. Please see the show notes. And with that, it's on with the show. Last December, a Globe and Mailline caught my attention. It reads, Our family member died of a fentanyl overdose. We don't think the man who supplied the drugs should go to prison. It's not typical to see the loved ones of a deceased victim advocating for less punishment
Starting point is 00:01:39 for the person found criminally responsible. I was eager to read more." In this piece, the authors who are mother and daughter reflect on attending the sentencing hearing for a young man convicted of selling their loved one, the fentanyl that killed her in early 2020. The Crown Prosecutor wanted him behind bars for three years, but the authors don't agree. They write that it makes no sense to turn the person who sold the drugs into a scapegoat for what they describe as a cascade of effects on their family's life that led to the tragedy.
Starting point is 00:02:18 They say, quote, We are not the victims of one particular criminal off offense, but rather of a series of interlocking and deeply inadequate health services, systems and policies that failed Sophie repeatedly. You'll hear about Sophie Breene in a moment. This opinion piece was written by her mother, Toronto writer Mary Fairhurst Breene, along with her other daughter, Sophie's sister, Dr. Emma Feltess, a social anthropologist. I reached out to Mary to ask if I could share Sophie's story. We struck up a rapport and started collaborating on this series with the other families.
Starting point is 00:03:02 In the true crime space, there's a tendency to focus on violent crimes like murders, with often oversimplified yet dramatic storytelling that puts people into neatly defined categories, leading to a satisfying ending audiences tend to crave. The proverbial bad guy got caught, and there was justice for the victim. But what happens when the bad guy isn't just one person? We often focus on who is most to blame for the opioid crisis. Is it the manufacturers who create the product? The doctors who prescribe it, the black market dealers who push it,
Starting point is 00:03:43 the users who can't seem to live without it. Here in Canada, many have been sidetracked playing the blame game, but we have to face facts. Since 2016, almost 40,000 Canadians have died of toxic drug poisoning, and most were accidental deaths, caused by street drugs contaminated with deadly illegal fentanyl. It's extremely potent and extremely addictive. Just one tiny milligram can be the difference between life or death. In this series, we share the stories of Sophie Brin, Seth McLean, Sky Crasweller, and Morgan Goodridge, four young Canadians from completely different walks of life who were all cherished by their loved ones, yet
Starting point is 00:04:33 all met the same tragic fate in recent years. It's because of devastating stories like theirs that the opioid crisis in Canada is now considered a serious public health crisis. It might be easy for us to dismiss this crisis as something that's affecting other people, but through these stories we'll show how it is starting to affect everyone across all demographics and not just those who use opioids. It's also devastated their families, their friends, their communities, and fact, entire countries like Canada. We'll look at why this is happening
Starting point is 00:05:13 and what the evidence shows we could be doing to stop the carnage. The war on drugs has long since been lost. It's mostly been a war on drug users with an astounding number of casualties. A crime and punishment model based on total abstinence from drugs will not get us out of this mess. As with so many social and health issues, evidence and compassion should be driving policy, but unfortunately, evidence and compassion are themselves under attack.
Starting point is 00:05:47 A real-world solution is needed yesterday, a solution that actually reduces the number of these drug poisoning deaths. Yet the conversation in Canada seems to be driven by politicians and leaders from all sides, arguing about the best way to do it. It's almost as though winning is more important than saving lives. And many of us are too distracted to notice that the only actual winner here is organized crime, who supply the illicit drug market. People who use drugs don't just stop. They often can't, and while politicians continue to bicker, the clock is ticking, and more Canadians are dying. Each of the families involved in this series have guided their own level of participation.
Starting point is 00:06:41 Sophie Breene's mother, Mary Fairhurstst Breene is a published author and audiobook narrator in her own right. And because she wrote Sofie's story, I asked her if she would like to narrate it herself. I think it's really powerful to hear directly from her, and I'm grateful that she wanted to. 27-year-old Sofie Breene was originally from Toronto Toronto but had moved to the city of Guelph Ontario for university some years earlier. On Tuesday, March 3, 2020, Sophie was chatting with her mother Mary about recent incidents
Starting point is 00:07:17 of opioid toxicity in Guelph. That day, the 27-year-old reassured her mother that she wasn't using, but agreed it was good that warnings were being circulated in the community. Mary knew all about her daughter's history with hazardous substance use. She also knew Sophie was extremely knowledgeable about drugs, addiction and treatment options, and had volunteered with local harm reduction and supervised consumption sites. Sofi had almost finished her undergrad degree in social work. So Mary Brin was not expecting the news she received the next morning. Wednesday, March 4th of 2020.
Starting point is 00:08:03 March the 4th of 2020. I'd privately dreaded the call for years, but not on that particular Wednesday. I had already left for work, so the cop standing outside my apartment door told me over the phone that my 27-year-old daughter Sophie had died overnight. that my 27-year-old daughter Sophie had died overnight. The timing was unbelievable. A global pandemic was about to shut down the entire world, and everyone was in a panic about protecting themselves and their families from bound. But our tragedy was related to the other health crisis
Starting point is 00:08:41 gaining deadly momentum. Sophie was the 12th person to overdose on Fetnel in the small city of Guelph over a period of 48 hours. Two of the 12 did not survive. Since that time, I've been judicious about my use of the word overdose. It cannot accurately be described as an overdose when any dose of the toxic adulterated drugs circulating on the street can be fatal. Sophie did know what she was taking. She purposely bought fentanyl, but lots of people have no idea what's in the substance as they're using. It's been a long time since the carefree days
Starting point is 00:09:18 of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. The stakes could not be higher. rock and roll. The stakes could not be higher. The day before she died, Sophie and I had communicated by text and online several times, which was usual. She went to see her doctor that afternoon to review for the umpteenth time, whether there was anything different she could try to combat both her mental and physical pain, without one remedy creating a whole new set of problems as so often seen to happen. We had talked at length on the phone of Sunday, when she had confessed to her relapse with heroin a couple of weeks earlier. I reacted calmly, as I always did, and she reacted gratefully to my comb, as she always did.
Starting point is 00:10:03 Sophie was known in what she would call active addiction when she died. Not that this was terribly relevant in the end. She had relapsed only occasionally in the six years since she had identified her substance use as an addiction. Though when she relapsed, it was with the scary stuff. She was on a lot of prescribed medication, but she would not take legal opioids or benzodiazepines knowing the likelihood of addiction, even though doctors who didn't know her were quick to offer them.
Starting point is 00:10:38 The whole thing was very confusing to me, and I began to feel like the distinction between what was legal and what was illegal was pretty arbitrary. The addiction Sophia originally sought treatment for was to cannabis, as with alcohol lots of people can use it recreationally or socially with few or no negative effects, others cannot. Sophie had become so dependent on weed to control her anxiety, she couldn't function without it, and was prone to panic attacks. I wish I'd known so much sooner
Starting point is 00:11:11 about the vulnerability of the under 25-year-old brain. Today's weed can be 5 to 20 times more potent than the kind enjoyed by the hippie generation, and using it as a teen can be dangerous. It can alter the immature brain, significantly increasing the likelihood of developing certain mental illnesses as well as addiction. This is not an argument for recriminalizing cannabis, but rather for better awareness and education, and perhaps a higher legal age. We're so careful with our baby's brains inside their soft little newborn heads. It may be that our teens' brains need equal or more protection. Sophie had been excited to start her undergrad degree at the University of Guelph in the fall of 2013,
Starting point is 00:12:05 her undergrad degree at the University of Guelph in the fall of 2013. But her anxiety became so severe, she experienced a mental health crisis just before the end of term, and had to be admitted to hospital. From Guelph General, she was transferred across the street to Homewood Health Center, a privately owned and operated facility specializing in mental health and addiction. The first couple of weeks were covered by our provincial health care plan when Sophie symptoms were considered acute. It was recommended that she then take part in a residential treatment program for mood disorders, the price tag, $16,000. I don't know if people realize that mental health care in Canada is too tiered.
Starting point is 00:12:45 The weight to see a psychiatrist can be many months, especially in smaller communities. I remember when the only psychiatrist, Sophie, who could find who was accepting patients in Guelph, was a guy under investigation for sexual misconduct. A nurse had to be present during all of his appointments with patients. And psychiatrist often have time only to manage medications and not to offer talk therapy or other support. Counseling with psychologists and social workers is covered only in hospitals and government funded clinics, often for a limited number of visits.
Starting point is 00:13:19 People increasingly have to turn to emergency rooms when they're in distress and can't get an appointment anywhere else. The Canadian Mental Health Association is advocating for full government funding of mental health services. Particularly since the pandemic, when 38% of Canadians reported a deterioration in their mental health, governments have begun to step up, but 10 years ago ago our options were to pay or to put Sophie on a three-year waiting list for a provincially funded bed. I hadn't heard of crowdfunding at the time, but I sent desperate emails to anyone of means that I even vaguely knew to ask for financial help. One incredible man, a guy I'd met a handful of times times wrote me a check for the full amount because he could, and he cared.
Starting point is 00:14:06 Sophie spent six weeks at home with that winter, then another six weeks in the spring. This time in a program for people with PTSD and concurrent addictions. Somehow, someone secured a free bed for her second stay. I never found out what went on behind the scenes to make that happen, but I was extremely grateful. Like overdose, the words addiction and especially addict can be problematic. I prefer language more nuanced than these nouns that tend to stick to people like a scarlet letter.
Starting point is 00:14:40 Borrowing from French sentence structure is helpful. A person who uses drugs already sounds kinder than a drug user, because it emphasizes that behavior. One behavior does not define a person. My daughter did refer to herself as an addict when she attended a 12-step program at the beginning of her recovery. I found the word jarring when I attended meetings with her. The term clean made me uncomfortable too, mostly because it's the opposite of dirty, which she was not, nor were any of the people in those rooms. But I respected her choice and celebrated her abstinence. Her one-year medallion ceremony was one of the most joyful nights of
Starting point is 00:15:23 her life. I also respected her decision to move towards a more holistic approach to her health and leave her caught of synonymous when she had gained what she needed from it. Abstinence is one of many valid approaches to harmful substance use, but it often doesn't work. Assigning a hierarchy to treatment options is extremely unhelpful. When someone finds out that Sophie died, they sometimes ask if she had been ill. People wonder understandably if she had cancer, or one of the relatively few other diseases that can end the life of someone so young.
Starting point is 00:16:00 It's a complicated question, and not everybody wants to hear the whole answer. Did Sophie die suddenly? Yes. As a complicated question, and not everybody wants to hear the whole answer, did Sophie die suddenly? Yes. Did she die after a lengthy illness? Also yes. Sometimes I say she died from the opioid epidemic, which is perhaps the most accurate answer I could give.
Starting point is 00:16:22 Sophie had a somewhat nebulous and often bewildering tangle of serious illnesses. She was diagnosed with depression, anxiety and complex PTSD when she went into homeward in 2013. She spent more than four months of 2018 in hospital as well, receiving electrocumbus of therapy, with multiple ER visits plus some short hospitalizations and outpatient caring between. People are disinclined to ask why Sophie had PTSD. They know the answer to that question is going to be upsetting to them and to me.
Starting point is 00:16:57 But here it is. Her father died when she was 11. Like her, he had a lengthy illness and a sudden death. He died by suicide, which obviously does serious damage to a kid. But really, he died of substance use disorder, after several years of chaos and harmful behavior. As a layperson grasping for information, I tried to find out what all this meant for Sophie. I read studies that would put her risk of early death somewhere between two and four times higher than the average woman.
Starting point is 00:17:30 The Center for Addiction Mental Health reports that mental illness and substance use disorders are the leading cause of disability in Canada. It also notes on its website that the disease burden of mental illness and substance use in Ontario is 1.5 times higher than all cancers put together. In short, my daughter's prognosis was not very good, but I know that if she'd had safe options to relieve her suffering on the night of March 3rd, 2020, she would have chosen one of those. The morning after Sophie's death, I had to speak to the coroner, who told me there was
Starting point is 00:18:11 evidence of drugs that the scene. I told him suicide was a strong possibility, but I really wasn't sure, it didn't sit right. Because I knew Sophie would never purposely let her fiance find her body. She had intentionally overdosed Sworns before and he had rushed her to hospital, where she remained unconscious in the ICU for 24 hours. She was discharged as soon as her vital signs were stable. I knew that she would never want to put him through that again. His support never wavered
Starting point is 00:18:42 in the five years they were together. The police told me that Sophie's text trail with her dealer revealed that she had taken one dose and let him know that her pain was completely gone. I got a text from her around the same time just to say, love you lots. I replied that I loved her lots too. She must have taken more a few hours later. In those first few days after the news, once I returned to my body from the disassociated place I'd been hovering, I couldn't stop thinking about what my daughter felt when
Starting point is 00:19:19 the second dose of fentanyl hit her system. I couldn't stop myself from googling in search of what I wanted to be true, that her death was swift and painless. It was excruciating enough knowing that she had died alone with an eloxone kid in the next room. Evidence suggests that she did die instantly. Her chair was overturned, her food and drinks spilled. She had some art supplies out. She had taken lamb chops out of the freezer to thaw. She must have intended to cook them the next day. The cop I spoke to was convinced that so we didn't mean to die. She said that what so often happens is this. One hit of fentanyl feels amazing. It also impairs the ability to measure time and quantity.
Starting point is 00:20:06 Add to that the fact that the concentration in the illicit supply is wildly unpredictable and it's nothing short of Russian roulette. In the Guelph newspaper, Sophie was described as victim number 12, but to us her fiance, her sister, her friends and me. But to us, her fiance, her sister, her friends and me, she was one of a kind, a powerfully intelligent, passionate, talented, independent, resilient woman. For years, through terrible suffering, she went all out in an effort to regain her health. She tried everything Western and Eastern medicine had to offer, and some pretty woo-woo alternatives too. When she was feeling well, her impact, her achievements, and her lust for life were formidable. When she got worse,
Starting point is 00:20:51 she always sought help. She never hid what she was going through from the people she loved. Her symptoms included debilitating fatigue and severe and chronic physical pain. No one can fault her for seeking a moment's relief. I used those exact words in Sophie's obituary. I was completely honest about her cause of death. Sophie had been such an advocate for herself and others who lived with mental illness and addiction. I knew she would want us to keep trying to change minds.
Starting point is 00:21:27 It's all too easy for many of us to dismiss the opioid crisis as one that affects other people, other families, but that's just not the case. And while what happened to Sophie Brin is devastating and heart-wrenching, it's perhaps even more tragic to think that she is by no means alone. Later, we'll cross back to Mary Brine for more of Sophie's story and the aftermath, including the young man who would be convicted of selling Sophie the fentanyl that killed her. But to get a sense of the complexity of the problem, we have to take a quick trip back in time, because there wouldn't be an opioid crisis without opium.
Starting point is 00:22:11 Opium is often referred to as the main painkiller in a pre-aspirant age. It's basically the sap collected from the seed pod of the opium poppy plant, sometimes called latex or resin. The first human use of opium as a pain reliever has been tracked to the Mediterranean region thousands of years ago. It's also been used to help with sleep and digestion. It's been given to teething babies. Benjamin Franklin wrote about taking opium to help with his pain from kidney stones.
Starting point is 00:22:49 During wartime, including the American Revolutionary War, opium was used to treat sick or wounded soldiers from both armies. And it's well documented that after the American Civil War, many soldiers returned with opium addictions that resulted in massive problems for their families and communities. Obviously, opium is extremely addictive, both physically and psychologically. What might commonly start as medical use for pain relief can easily turn into hopeless addiction with people willing to do anything
Starting point is 00:23:26 to get more. There's a few reasons for this over and above the pain relief itself. OPM can cause a euphoric high feeling that people crave more of, but it doesn't take long for the body to build up a tolerance. Before long, larger and larger doses are likely needed to achieve that same feeling, but also to avoid the horrendous withdrawal symptoms, which commonly include chills, nausea, and painful cramps. OPM is often associated with China, but not because the Chinese were the only ones who used it.
Starting point is 00:24:06 It's because of what happened when China famously decided to crack down on it. There's a new forensic true crime book coming out in October that I am eagerly anticipating. It's called Lay Them To Rest by Laura Norton, who you might know from her critically acclaimed investigative podcast The Fall Line. As a huge, huge fan of Laura's work, I wanted to give you the heads up that you can pre-order her book right now. Lay Them To Rast out this October from her ship Book Group vividly opens up the world of forensic science.
Starting point is 00:24:48 Lay them to rest brings readers to crime scenes, labs, and law enforcement offices, all in the name of identifying John and Jane Doe victims. It's written by a seasoned cold case researcher who also hosts the popular podcasts, one strange thing, and the fall line. Readers immersed in Lay Them to Rest will even follow along as a victim is identified for the first time, and her family, decades later, finally gets some answers. Heartbreaking, hopeful, and insightful, Latham to rest will show you how far we've come in solving the cases of the unidentified dead, and how far we have yet to go. Preorder Latham to rest now, wherever you get books.
Starting point is 00:25:39 In the late 1700s, the British were in their colonisation era and were eyeing the opium being grown in India. Over the next decade, there was heavy investment in the production and export of Indian opium around the world, a trade agreement that would prove highly profitable for the British Empire, as more and more people started using it recreationally. In China, the government did not like what it was seeing. OPM was weakening their worker population and making them less reliable, and this was causing serious and large-scale social and economic disruption. So, in an effort to curb this problem,
Starting point is 00:26:16 China banned the production, importation, sale and usage of OPM. But the population simply turned to the black market, which was of course controlled by the British Empire. So now, illegal opium continued to flow into China, and the Chinese money flowed straight back out into the pockets of the British. Economically, it was very bad news for China. So the government decided the only solution was to clamp down on a legal trade. To say Britain wasn't too keen
Starting point is 00:26:55 on this decision is an understatement. With the force of their military, they fought back twice. These were the famous opium wars of 1839 and 1856, and not only did China lose them both, but the country had to give over control of Hong Kong, plus a huge sum of money to the British, and agree to a range of unfavorable trade deals. So, how did these opium wars affect Canada? It's all about the railway. In 1881, about 20 years after the end of the second opium war,
Starting point is 00:27:33 Canada employed about 17,000 temporary Chinese workers to complete the ambitious Canadian Pacific Railway. These workers were tasked with finishing the most dangerous and challenging parts that went through British Columbia, in exchange for a pittance wage and a not insignificant chance of death or serious injury. These Chinese workers also brought with them the habit and social traditions of smoking opium, and some established their own opium dens in Vancouver, Chinatown, to sell and smoke it. Opium was unregulated in Canada at the time, with alcohol and tobacco being considered
Starting point is 00:28:16 more of a problem to public health, for reasons that still hold true. But things started to change when a collection of Protestant Christian church groups started promoting a moral panic. That portrayed opium use as some kind of exotic foreign threat, that the Chinese not only brought to Canada, but were profiting from. Even though it was well known that the British controlled the opium trade, not the Chinese. It was a pretty convenient moral panic for many European settlers in Canada to pile on. They were starting to grow resentful of the Chinese workers. Worry that when the railway was finished, they might
Starting point is 00:28:58 stick around in Canada and take jobs away from them. It's a familiar story. The opium trade and opium dens were not targeted for the harm they might cause, but for the profit they made for these newcomers. It's only after the two issues got conveniently mixed up together that the government started paying serious attention. When the railway was finished in 1885, Canada had no need to continue to exploit the Chinese workers for their labor on such a large scale. So, that same year, the John A. McDonald government introduced the first piece of legislation in Canada's history that excluded immigrants based on ethnic origin, requiring Chinese immigrants
Starting point is 00:29:46 to pay an exorbitant upfront fee to enter Canada. This anti-immigrant sentiment entangled with the associated moral panic of opium use only intensified as the turn of the century approached and would set the stage for the Canadian drug policies and laws that have resulted in the opioid crisis. As you heard from Mary Brine earlier, the term drug overdoses not really appropriate or medically accurate, because it implies that a person knew what the proper dose should be and simply chose to take more than that. It's unfair and it's highly stigmatizing and that's not
Starting point is 00:30:32 conducive to a solution. A growing number of advocates and medical professionals prefer the term drug poisoning because it refers to what is actually happening to the patient's body rather than focusing on their actions. Later in this series, you'll also meet the family of Morgan Goodridge from British Columbia, who died of accidental drug poisoning in June of 2020. He was just 26 years old. Morgan's mother Kathleen has said publicly, quote,
Starting point is 00:31:10 the government has blood on their hands. It's a bold statement, but children are dying. Our kids are dying. We've lost a generation. Look at the numbers. They've sat on their hands and they've done very little. She believes that her son Morgan would be alive today if he had access to a safe drug supply, and if there were less stigma, shame and judgment around addiction.
Starting point is 00:31:39 When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, governments moved quickly to provide awareness, safety measures, and financial aid to flatten the curve. In Canada, there were weekly COVID case updates and death counts throughout the first couple of years. And in 2021, the Public Health Agency of Canada reported just under 15,000 coronavirus deaths. That's too many, of course,
Starting point is 00:32:06 but to give another perspective, there were an additional 7,169 Canadians who died of opioid drug poisoning that same year, and those deaths almost completely flew under the radar. That's half the amount of COVID deaths, not an insignificant number. Morgan Goodridge's mother, Kathleen, would like to know why the public never received opioid fatality updates. It's a valid question. We'll circle back to Morgan later in the series,
Starting point is 00:32:40 but this next story, about 31-year-old Seth McLean, provides some insights into this question, and they are pretty damning. Unlike Sophie Breen's mother Mary, Seth McLean's next-of-kin never even got a phone call. It's almost unbelievable that Seth's body was buried by authorities, while his family was still frantically searching the streets of downtown Toronto for him. Like all human lives, Seth's was unique, but his story has unsurprising and frankly unacceptable similarities to those of so many young people lost to opioids. There's not enough support, not the right kind of support,
Starting point is 00:33:26 and ultimately, not enough value placed on his life. In July of 2020, just a few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Seth McClain suddenly disappeared from the Dixon Hall homeless shelter in Toronto where he'd been staying. His mother, Naurissa and other family members spent that entire summer looking for him, but found no sign. Finally, on September 10, 2020, Naurissa decided to go to 51 Division of the Toronto Police
Starting point is 00:34:01 Service. This date was an important one, Seth's 32nd birthday. Or it would have been. The police said to Narissa, I'm sorry to tell you this, but your son passed away on July 12th of a drug overdose. The McLean family were devastated to learn that the entire time they were desperately searching for Seth, he was dead and nobody had notified them. And perhaps were still, Seth never actually disappeared from the homeless shelter he'd been staying at. He died there, his body was found by another resident.
Starting point is 00:34:43 Not only did the shelter know exactly who he was, but his emergency contact details should have been easily available. After 45 days lying in limbo at the Provincial Coroner's office, Seth's body had been buried, naked, in a basic wooden box in an unmarked grave in Pickering, about 40 kilometers east of Toronto. When someone dies, it's up to the police and the regional coroner's office
Starting point is 00:35:13 to conduct a search for Nextive Kin. There are procedures for delivering compassionate messages or the bad news that their loved one is gone. If the Nextive Kin cannot be identified immediately, officers are supposed to reach out to friends, neighbors, social agencies, and members of the community. They can also contact the office of the public guardian and trustee.
Starting point is 00:35:38 If the search is deemed complete or exhausted and no next of kin are identified, the coroner can then order a municipality to bury a deceased person. That's how it's supposed to happen anyway. Sets mother, grandmother and aunt were his trustees, information that was on file and accessible to the police. He also had a lengthy criminal record.
Starting point is 00:36:04 He was well known to police as news reports often phrase it. The Toronto Sun reported that at least one of the police officers who attended the scene after Seth's death knew his identity. So why did nobody receive the compassionate message they were entitled to. Seth's family feels that the authorities simply couldn't be bothered. Seth McLean grew up in the west end of Toronto with two siblings, Lamar and Talia. He loved basketball and rap, and was a happy, popular kid. But according to his mother, Narissa, his behavior dramatically changed when he was a teenager.
Starting point is 00:36:51 Quote, he started acting like he didn't want to be around people anymore, which was very out of character for him. His behavior became so bizarre. At 16, Seth was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. He was treated with medication, but experienced severe side effects. He told his mother he felt like something was crawling all over him. He said he felt like a zombie. Seth chose to self-medicate, first with weed, then crack cocaine. By his mid-twenties, he was living on the streets. He was arrested more than a hundred times.
Starting point is 00:37:34 The McLean family tried repeatedly to get support for Seth. His mother, Narissa, would locate him and talk to him six or seven times every month, trying to convince him to accept treatment. And he was not hard to find, because he was either in jail in a shelter or in the area of Dundas and Sherborn in Toronto. Even after Seth was arrested twice for violent incidents involving stabbing, he was released from jail to fend for himself.
Starting point is 00:38:06 His mother says, quote, "'People don't choose to be an addict and they don't choose to live on the street. And don't think that people out there don't have somebody because everybody has somebody.'" Lamar McLean had to identify his brother from autopsy photographs. He says, I would have loved to just kiss my brother on his forehead and say goodbye. I didn't get that chance. They took that away from me and that's not right.
Starting point is 00:38:41 For any parent, the prospect of being notified that your child is dead is unimaginable. But Narissa McLean wasn't even told proactively. She had to contact the police herself, only to learn that not only had he been dead for two months, but they'd buried his body in a random cemetery outside Toronto. So after this ordeal, she asked herself, what can I change so no other child will be buried that way? So no other mother has to go through this." Nuressa started a petition aimed at the Toronto police, the Ministry of Social Services and the Solicitor General, to ensure that no other family has to experience the same thing. It read in part,
Starting point is 00:39:30 Seth was found dead in a Toronto homeless shelter on July 12, following a fentanyl overdose. Toronto police and the Ontario Coroner's office had the vital duty of locating us, Seth's family and next of kin, to notify us of his death. This task should not have been difficult. Even the most basic of inquiries would have led to us, but we weren't notified.
Starting point is 00:39:57 The coroner's office already has protocols in place which lists the trustees office as one of the first places to look when trying to locate next of kin. Had anyone bothered to do that, they would have found us straight away. We spent months searching for Seth. We walked the streets, we contacted hospitals and jails. Seth was a loving, caring, handsome and gentle soul and never wished harm to anyone. Because Toronto police and the coroner's office didn't do their job, my family never had the chance to see him one last time, to say a final goodbye. The McLean family asked the public to join them in demanding action to determine exactly where negligence
Starting point is 00:40:45 occurred and make sure those responsible were held accountable. They requested an external and public review of how the coroner's office handled Seth's death, an inquest into his death and others who have died of drug poisoning in the shelter system, and updated protocols and training to prevent situations like this happening again. In response, Ontario chief coroner Dr. Dirk Hire told CBC News that if his agency failed to locate next of Ken in a situation where it would have been possible to do so, then he is to blame. A year after Seth's death,
Starting point is 00:41:26 Haya confirmed the hiring of four new staff members dedicated to this task. He described the changes as Seth's revisions and praised the McLean family for their courage and their efforts to help others. In an effort to write their wrong, the coroner's office offered to exume Seth's body and re-berry him at a location of the family's choosing. But Narissa says she finds the pickering site quite peaceful and decided to leave her son where he was.
Starting point is 00:41:58 It is now marked with a proper gravestone. Police at 51 Division organized a memorial for Seth outside Dixon Hall, the shelter where he died in the summer following his death. They also implemented new protocols for ensuring next-of-kin are notified. These were of course welcome improvements, but the McLean family have stressed that these weren't the only systemic failures revealed in the wake of Seth's passing. They believe that shelters like Dixon Hall also need to re-evaluate their approach to
Starting point is 00:42:34 be more focused on the safety of people in their care. Seth's mother, Narissa, would write, Seth, suffering serious mental illness, should not have been able to go upstairs unsupervised and overdose without anyone realizing. The pandemic aggravated the opioid crisis on multiple levels. The social disruption caused an exacerbated mental health problems. The economic disruption resulted in financial hardship and a drastic uptick in people experiencing homelessness because they couldn't pay rent. Shelters became full and overloaded, and
Starting point is 00:43:13 tent city started popping up. This series of conditions resulted in an increase in hazardous substance use, yet the harm reduction in treatment services were either temporarily closed or had to reduce their hours and capacity. Basically, a whole lot of balls were dropped and people died. When it comes to fatal opioid drug poisoning, the numbers are grim. Toronto Public Health reported that July of 2020, the month that Seth McLean passed away, had the highest number of opioid-related deaths in the agency's recorded history, with a total of 27 fatalities. Of those, Seth was just one of nine who died of drug poisoning at a Toronto shelter. Not only was it one of the shelter systems deadliest summers, but 2020 was one of its deadliest
Starting point is 00:44:13 years, with three times as many fatal drug poisoning at Toronto shelters compared to 2019. Toronto's shelter support and housing administration did follow up with the McLean family about their concerns, informing them about the improvements to the collection of next-of-kin information and increased safeguards around harm reduction. Their letter read, I hope you will derive some comfort from knowing that these initiatives and system improvements will be set to legacy. Through Seth McClain's story, we see a snapshot of the conditions in Toronto's shelter system in 2020. traditions in Toronto's shelter system in 2020. But because the opioid crisis makes the news only occasionally,
Starting point is 00:45:08 many Canadians don't know the full, tragic extent of the situation. 2021 was the worst year on record so far, with more than 7,100 Canadians dying from a parent opioid toxicity. In just one year. That's an average of 21 deaths per day, and health Canada reports that of those, 86% involved fentanyl, and 98% would determine to be accidental. But deaths are not the only indicator. That same year, 2021, emergency services responded to over 40,000 suspected opioid-related deaths. That's a 92% increase compared to pre-pandemic
Starting point is 00:45:58 figures. Looking at the big picture over a 25-year period, drug-related deaths in Canada have increased by about 400%. And statistics Canada data shows that accidental drug poisoning deaths are actually offsetting gains in life expectancy in other areas, with opioids being the primary cause of these deaths. You would think that a reported drop in life expectancy would light a fire under governments at every level to take immediate action.
Starting point is 00:46:34 You would be wrong. So how did Canada get itself into this mess in the first place? Let's go back to where we left off, about 20 years after the Canadian Pacific Railway was finished. Well, the Chinese head tax policy did curb immigration somewhat. It didn't stop it entirely. Increasing anti-immigrant sentiment was now closely tied to the problem of opium, and the situation was becoming volatile. In 1907, a large group of European settlers famously marched to Vancouver City Hall, and what is now known as the Vancouver Anti-Asian Riots. While the protest was about the presumed threat that immigrants from China and other Asian
Starting point is 00:47:28 countries posed to their job security, some protesters splinted off and vandalized Asian-owned businesses, stirring up violence and creating chaos. At the time, the use of opium and opiates in Canada was completely unregulated, with alcohol and tobacco being considered more of a problem to public health, for reasons that still hold true. But during these riots, anti-OPM groups connected to the Protestant Christian churches saw an opportunity to lobby the government and make their case for criminalization of the drug. Future Prime Minister Mackenzie King at that point the Minister of Labor was listening and
Starting point is 00:48:13 investigating. He would be quoted saying, The Chinese with whom I converse on the subject assured me that almost as much opium was sold to white people as Chinese and the habit of opium smoking was making headway, not only among white men and boys, but also among women and girls. To be indifferent to the growth of such an evil in Canada would be inconsistent with those principles of morality, which ought to govern the conduct of a Christian nation. Perhaps more importantly, Kingwood State that the Chinese were making vast profits from the growth of this so-called evil in Canada.
Starting point is 00:48:50 Something had to be done about it. Canada had to set an example. McKenzie King supported the introduction of the 1908 OPM Act, which made it an indictable offense to import manufacture or sell OPM for non-medical purposes, although it didn't prohibit simple possession or use. Three years later, this act was replaced by harsher legislation that added morphine and cocaine to the list of prohibited substances. Law enforcement was encouraged to target Chinese men and drug-related convictions rose. In 1920, the year after McKenzie King became Prime Minister of Canada, he passed the
Starting point is 00:49:39 OPM and Narcotic Drug Act, along with a newly created arm of government, the Narcotic Division. This division developed the binary approach still dominant today. You must completely abstain from drugs or risk jail time. No middle ground. It's for this reason that Mackenzie King is often referred to as the Canadian father of prohibition. By the time World War II was over, 11 illegal kinds of drugs were included in the act, including morphine, cocaine, heroin, codine, and marijuana, now known as cannabis.
Starting point is 00:50:21 Most of the OPM dens had closed down, and smoking OPM was no longer the focus. Attention had turned to injecting heroin and morphine, opioids. But before we continue, a quick sidebar. What exactly are opioids and how do they relate to opium opiates and narcotics? Natural opioids are derived directly from the opium poppy and include opium itself as well as morphine and codine. They're sometimes also called opiates, meaning directly derived from natural opium, but that can be confusing, so we'll stick with natural opioids.
Starting point is 00:51:08 Semicinthetic opioids are also derived from the opium poppy, but the differences that they're subjected to additional chemical processing. This category includes heroin, as well as oxycodone and hydrocodone, which often come as prescription pain medications like oxycontin, percocet, and vicaridin. The third kind are fully synthetic opioids, which use chemicals in a lab to mimic the natural substance found in the opium poppy. Fentanyl, methadone, and tramadol
Starting point is 00:51:43 are fully synthetic opioids. When it comes to narcotics, it was a label often used as a catch-all for a variety of substances, including stimulants that help increase focus and alertness like cocaine, methamphetamines and adorol. The label of narcotics is also sometimes included benzodiazepines like valium or zanx that help with anxiety or sleep. But scientifically speaking, narcotics are opioids, defined as any substance that acts on the brain's opioid receptors to dull the senses and relieve pain. So that's why public health agencies have moved away from using the term narcotics.
Starting point is 00:52:29 Now don't worry if all this hasn't fully sunk in because the key takeaway is this. Whether these substances have been derived naturally or created in a lab, they're all extremely potent and highly addictive. They all fall under the umbrella of opioids and they're all part of the opioid crisis. So in the years after World War II, psychiatrists began to take a more active role in the treatment of addiction, but they saw the issue as both pathological and criminal.
Starting point is 00:53:17 In other words, a person must have some underlying mental or emotional disorder that caused them to commit the crime of using drugs. This was reflected in the criminal justice system. In this general period between the 1940s and 70s, 75% of drug convictions were for possession, and of those 75% resulted in prison sentences. According to Dr. Susan Boyd's book Busted, an illustrated history of drug prohibition in Canada. Quote, Many viewed people who used drugs as inherently dangerous and a risk to society.
Starting point is 00:53:58 Addiction remained firmly linked to criminality. There was little consideration for any other factors involved in substance use. A shift happened in the 1950s. After Vancouver Research Dr. Lawrence Ranta and colleagues authored a report that found drug use and addiction should be considered a health issue rather than a criminal justice issue. One recommendation was the establishment of publicly funded drug treatment, including narcotic clinics that would dispense legal heroin for people who were addicted to the drug. Seventy years later, this evidence-based position is still highly controversial. At the time, all it took was just one politician to introduce this report and recommendations
Starting point is 00:54:50 to Parliament. Ernest Winch, member of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia, highlighted the class bias reflected in the enforcement of drug laws, noting that it was poor and working class people who were disproportionately punished for drug-related offences. After all, wealthy people had the cash to pay others to purchase drugs for them, not only were they less likely to be caught, but they could also afford expensive addiction treatment. MLA Wincher's argument was successful, resulting in the establishment of the Narcotic
Starting point is 00:55:28 Addiction Foundation of British Columbia in 1955, the first organisation in Canada to provide methadone as a treatment to ease withdrawal. This was only a provincial approach though. The federal government wasn't interested, but eventually decided to throw the medical community a bone after calls for action and grew too loud to ignore. A Senate special committee was established to look at the issue, but evidently, the loudest voices at the committee hearings were those of law enforcement. The end result? The federal government strengthened its criminal justice approach to substance use, with
Starting point is 00:56:10 the highly punitive narcotic control act of 1961, which restricted all drug-related activities exclusively to medical and scientific purposes. That same year, Canada signed an international treaty that promoted countries working together to coordinate their drug policies with the goal of discouraging and deterring drug traffickers. None of these measures got to the root cause of the issue. A period of intense social change was coming. Up until that point, it was mostly racialized men who were targeted by drug policy, primarily Chinese and black men, with white heroin users living in poverty in cities coming second. These groups may have been considered unimportant and disposable, but the next group to capture
Starting point is 00:57:04 the attention of police were not. As traditional attitudes shifted in the 60s and 70s, cannabis use in Canada started to skyrocket among white, middle-class youth. When they, too, started being arrested for possession, the issue started to hit home for more privileged families. Mainstream media softened their previous stances, publishing stories that were critical of the harsh prison sentences. These young adults were not criminals, they were upstanding citizens.
Starting point is 00:57:50 In 1969, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau launched a new scientific inquiry to study the recreational or non-medical use of drugs. The final report detailed extensive scientific evidence that supported a reduction in criminal sanctions against people who use drugs, and called for the legalization of cannabis possession. It recommended drug education and medical management as a more effective strategy to combat addiction than strategies involving fear, punishment, and criminal sanctions. The report went nowhere, and the recommendations were never implemented. The criminal justice approach to substance use would only intensify over the next few decades.
Starting point is 00:58:33 In 1971, U.S. President Richard Nixon officially declared a war on drugs. America's public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive. And thus began a much-hyped and highly controversial period where the US focused heavily on punishment and fear to combat illegal drug use. In the 1980s, new U.S. President Ronald Reagan picked up the baton, with a campaign where he and the first lady urged people who might be offered drugs to just say no. I was asked by a group of children what to do if they were offered drugs, and I answered,
Starting point is 00:59:24 just say no. It's time, as Nancy said, for America to just say no to drugs. Critics would argue that this message oversimplified the complexities of drug addiction and failed to address the underlying social and economic failures that contributed to it. Whatever happens in the United States often trickles through to Canada in some form, and the war on drugs was no different. In 1987, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney introduced the country's first five-year national drug strategy, which maintained a commitment to abstinence from drugs and full prohibition.
Starting point is 01:00:07 But by the late 80s, the HIV AIDS crisis was in full swing. Although it was against the law, the first needle exchange programs opened in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, where used needles could be dropped off for safe disposal and exchanged for new sterile needles and injection equipment. Desperate times called for desperate measures, the goal was to save lives. In Vancouver in particular, drug use was and still is prevalent and visible to a degree not found in other cities. is prevalent and visible to a degree not found in other cities. Residents of the city's downtown Eastside neighborhood have always suffered disproportionately high drug-related harms, which is a big part of the reason why many efforts to address the drug problem in Canada have started in Vancouver.
Starting point is 01:01:01 A key year was 2001 when the city adopted the four-pillar approach to drug problems, an innovative and influential framework authored by Donald McPherson to address various issues associated with substance use. The framework is based on four principles, harm reduction, prevention, treatment, and enforcement, working together in a complimentary way to address the health, safety, and societal issues associated with substance use. Other cities that had already adopted this four-pillar approach were seeing great success. Two years later, in 2003, North America's first official supervised injection site opened
Starting point is 01:01:48 in Vancouver's downtown east side. This new program, called INSIDE, offers a safe and hygienic environment for people to inject their own illicit drugs under supervision. anecdotally it was a roaring success for citizens, health care professionals and the government alike, and the data confirming this would come in years later. A cost-benefit analysis published by the Canadian Medical Association Journal would conclude that insight has saved lives, increased life expectancy and contributed to the prevention of HIV, which all resulted in net savings for the government, which means taxpayers.
Starting point is 01:02:34 Three years after Insight was opened, there was a federal election that saw the conservative party of Canada elected to government, led by new Prime Minister Stephen Harper. His government preferred the criminalization approach to drugs and quickly introduced a new national anti-drug strategy, focusing on prevention, treatment and enforcement. The missing pillar was harm reduction, but the government was so vehemently opposed to it that not only was it not included in their anti-drug strategy, but they tried to shut down the existing service, Insight in Vancouver. It ended up before the Supreme Court of Canada, who ruled in 2011,
Starting point is 01:03:18 that shutting down the service amounted to a violation of Canadian charter rights for those who needed it. The federal government may have lost that battle, but was undeterred when it came to the war on drugs, an punitive or punishment approach to the people who used them. The following year 2012, the controversial Omni-Bus crime bill was introduced, with a stated goal of keeping communities safe with a range of tough-on-crime measures. Critics slammed the bill, pointing to numerous studies that showed criminals are not deterred by harsh punishments, particularly those involved in the organized crime and drug trafficking
Starting point is 01:04:00 that the government was trying to target. What this would do is disproportionately punish small-time drug offenders leading to more punishment, but not safer streets. At the time, the top criminal justice adviser for the Prime Minister strongly agreed with the party line that illegal drugs brought crime and devastation and the only solution was criminalization of both drugs and drug users. Later in this series we'll tell you about his public statement years later that he was wrong not questioning those policies. In 2015 there was a change in federal government, and the Liberal Party of Canada, led by Prime
Starting point is 01:04:49 Minister Justin Trudeau, was elected. The Decades Long Fight for Cannabis legislation ended with the introduction of the Cannabis Act in 2018. Fiers about a surge in cannabis use after it was legalized, proved unwarranted. But the new act did not break fully from a criminalisation approach. Some of the penalties for offences are quite serious, and one of the things the new law does not do is exonerate people who have previous criminal records for non-violent cannabis offences.
Starting point is 01:05:28 British Columbia has been one of the hardest hit by the opioid crisis and remains at the forefront of the response to it. Years are jarring fact. 30 years ago, the chief coroner of BC announced there had been an inordinately high number of drug-related deaths in the province, a problem described as very real and very serious. It was 1993, and the number recorded 2,306 deaths. That's an increase of almost 600%. The opioid crisis is officially shattering lives as well as records.
Starting point is 01:06:19 A growing number of advocates, healthcare professionals and politicians from British Columbia and other provinces have called for the federal government to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of hard drugs, like heroin, fentanyl and cocaine, and instead offer people the help they need without fear of punishment. They argue this is a necessary public health approach that will reduce the number of opioid-related deaths. When pressed, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said his government is prepared to discuss decriminalization, but he pushes back on committing to it.
Starting point is 01:07:00 A group of advocates are also pushing for the federal government to establish a royal commission to investigate the opioid crisis in Canada and examine the various factors and decisions that have contributed to it. One of those people is medical anthropologist Dan Small, who was involved in the creation of Insight in Vancouver. In a 2018 interview for Georgia Strait, he stated that if Canadians want to understand why medical, scientific and legal findings have not been enough for governments to take the necessary action to save lives, there needs to be an investigation of the underlying structural forces that have been at play, and an action plan to address them. Small has written a series of letters to the government about it, starting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau,
Starting point is 01:07:54 who referred him to the health minister, who told him to try the Governor General, who said the issue was outside her mandate. Dan Small said he had no choice but to start over again with the Prime Minister's office. Instead of meaningful action, he's only experienced a frustrating circle of buckpassing. And five years later, there is no hint of a royal commission. The truth is, the way many Canadians have found themselves pulled into the modern opioid crisis is not dissimilar to stories told from centuries ago. Some sought medical treatment to help with their physical pain, commonly resulting from illness or injury.
Starting point is 01:08:41 Others needed relief from mental pain, perhaps because of mental illness, trauma, a life stressor or a difficult situation. What is often supposed to be a short-term solution to help people through a tough time often ends up causing physical and psychological dependence, an entirely new problem. And when opioids are obtained without a prescription, without regulation of ingredients or instructions on safe use, the risk for accidental poisoning or even death increases rapidly. If governments at all levels were seen to be taking decisive action that clearly benefited and enriched the lives of the entire population instead of the wealthy few,
Starting point is 01:09:25 and made sure that everyone had access to adequate and affordable mental health care treatment when they needed it. Perhaps there wouldn't be so many people feeling they have no choice but to turn to illegal opioids for relief in the first place. Despite consistent findings from the medical and scientific communities that are health-based approach saves lives, increases life expectancy, and results in net savings. Governments remain reluctant to move away from a criminalisation and punishment approach. There's often a lot of focus on who was most to blame for the opioid crisis. There's often a lot of focus on who was most to blame for the opioid crisis. But Leslie McBain, co-founder of National Nonprofit Group Mum Stop the Harm, has a fundamental
Starting point is 01:10:12 question about all this. Why are Canadians needing to self-medicate to such an extent? Simply put, it is the pain of living that provides a market. And that may be the biggest conundrum of all. That's where we'll leave it for part one. Thanks for listening and special thanks to the families of Seth McClain, Morgan Goodridge and Sophie Brinne. Enter Sophie's mother Mary Brinne for her insightful and powerful writing in this series.
Starting point is 01:10:53 Part 2 will be available in a week, and if you're listening on one of the premium ad-free feeds, you'll have access to that episode very shortly. In Part 2, you'll hear two more stories of young Canadians who lost their lives during the opioid crisis, as we explore answers to urgent questions. How do we stop the steadily rising drug poisoning deaths? And why are so many Canadians seeking oblivion to escape from their pain in the first place.
Starting point is 01:11:25 We may not have the benefit of a Comprehensive Royal Commission report, but many experts in the field are clear about what's going wrong. We'll look at what advocates, including grief-stricken families, are saying about the current response to the Canadian opioid crisis, and what they're demanding be done instead. For the full list of resources we relied on to write this series and anything else you want to know about the podcast, see the show notes or visit We donate monthly to help those facing injustice.
Starting point is 01:12:01 In honour of August 31, International Overdose Awareness Day, we've donated to Mums Stop the Harm, a network of Canadian families impacted by substance use related harms and deaths. They advocate for the change of failed drug policies, provide peer support to grieving families and assist those with loved ones who use or have used substances. Learn more at Mary Fairhurst Breene is the lead writer and producer on this series. The original concept, case selection and research, was by Shelby Prokop Malar. Audio editing is by Nico from the Inky Poreprint,
Starting point is 01:12:45 aka We Talk of Dreams, who also composed the theme songs, and production assistance is by Jesse at the Inky Poreprint. Script consulting by Carol Weinberg, Indigenous Content Advice by Daniel Paradee, an additional research and writing creative direction and sound design
Starting point is 01:13:05 was by me. The disclaimer was voiced by Eric Crosby. I'll be back soon with part 2. See you then. you

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