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WEEKEND READ: 'My heart keeps breaking' as opioid crisis continues, says advocate

As the opioid-related death rate remains virtually unchanged from the previous year, Mayor Matthew Shoemaker says the mental health and addictions crisis is the foremost challenge in the community

The people of Sault Ste. Marie marked International Overdose Awareness Day on Thursday with speeches and a sombre moment of silence at the Memorial Wall followed by a livelier information-filled event at the Roberta Bondar Pavilion.

Thursday’s event attracted over 300 people to the pavilion, said SOYA founder Connie Raynor-Elliott.

“I myself am getting tired. The calls keep coming and and my heart keeps breaking,” said Raynor-Elliot earlier Thursday at the Memorial Wall outside the Ronald A. Irwin Civic Centre. “This year the amount of funerals and celebrations of life and private ceremonies — I lost count.”

That wall is adorned with bright yellow stars that were mostly blank when it was erected two years ago. Now almost all of the dozens of stars on its front face are filled in.

To get a star filled in, there is an application process to go through, but the rocks at the base of the Memorial Wall can be filled in by anybody and special markers were provided at the service for just that reason.

Although Raynor-Elliott noted the statistics for the opioid death rates in the Sault are not getting any better, she said there is hope. The Northway Wellness Centre, Community Resource Centre and Youth Hub projects are all expected to open in the near future.

“I will celebrate when those doors are open and those ribbons are cut,” said Raynor-Elliott.

Speaking during the event, Mayor Matthew Shoemaker also noted the statistics the Sault doesn’t seem to be able to shake.

“We have a higher than provincial average rates of opioid-related emergency department visits, opioid related hospitalizations, and unfortunately opioid related deaths,” said Shoemaker. 

He noted the human cost behind those statistics. 

“Words do not do justice to the losses and pain that so many have experienced and on behalf of city council, I want to offer my condolences to everyone affected by the mental health and addictions crisis,” said Shoemaker.

The mayor called the mental health and addictions crisis the foremost challenge in the community.

“Our economy is doing well, we have got great construction projects on the go, our post-secondary institutions are doing well — but we cannot thrive as a community until we tackle, with more earnest effort, the mental health and addictions crisis we are facing,” said Shoemaker.

Although not by name, he also seemed to call out his provincial and federal counterparts MP Terry Sheehan and MPP Ross Romano, neither of whom were in attendance for the event.

“To be frank, we have not received the support our community so badly needs,” said Shoemaker.

He addressed the social stigma attached to mental health and addictions, despite being a health care issue.

 “People with addiction challenges need health care. They need our compassion and support and our understanding,” he said.

Shoemaker applauded the resources that are about to open their doors in the near future, like the the Northway Wellness Centre, Community Resource Centre and Youth Hub projects.

“But work needs to continue on efforts to establish a supervised consumption site,” said Shoemaker. “I will speak loudly and persistently to make the case that our community see the need for one of these sites operating here in the not-too-distant future.”

After the speeches and moment of silence at the Memorial Wall, the crowd made the short walk to the Roberta Bondar Pavilion for a free barbecue and information tables set up by dozens of businesses and social agencies that service people living with mental health and addictions challenges in Sault Ste. Marie.

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Kenneth Armstrong

About the Author: Kenneth Armstrong

Kenneth Armstrong is a news reporter and photojournalist who regularly covers municipal government, business and politics and photographs events, sports and features.
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