Toxic drugs, gangs and hope: Meet the people fighting Canada’s opioid crisis | CBC News

Toxic drugs, gangs and hope: Meet the people fighting Canada’s opioid crisis | CBC News

Kyle Arnold knows how to help people trying to recover from drug addiction. He’s been there himself.

Arnold is a program coordinator at PACE, a drop-in centre in Thunder Bay, Ont., that provides a safe space and some comfort to many of the people in the city who don’t have homes, are addicted to drugs, or simply need a place to rest.

Arnold, who stopped using drugs almost five years ago, has a lot of compassion for the people that come through PACE’s doors.

“If you walk down the road and you look for the guy that’s 130 pounds, strung out, that everybody said would never get clean — that’s who I was. I had no chance, I was done, I was dying,” he told CBC’s The House as part of a special episode on the opioid crisis.

The House51:10On the frontlines of the toxic drug crisis

“I got clean,” Arnold told host Catherine Cullen. “That’s why, with everything in my heart, I know that anybody on these streets can do it. Because there’s nothing special about me that’s any different than any of them. Nothing.”

That’s a sentiment shared by his colleague Vanessa Tookenay, who is also in recovery.

A pregnant woman poses for a picture.

Vanessa Tookenay, a recovering drug user who works at the PACE drop-in in Thunder Bay, Ont., has turned her life around and is expecting a baby. (Jennifer Chevalier/CBC News)

“It’s important to share that part of ourselves, right? Because I’m just like everybody in the room here. The only difference is I just don’t use drugs,” she said.

Canada is experiencing an epidemic of overdose-related deaths, due in part to an increasingly toxic drug supply. While it’s among the country’s hardest hit communities, Thunder Bay is just one of many grappling with the consequences of severe addiction.

Fatalities associated with drug overdoses surged during the COVID-19 pandemic right across the country. In Ontario, for example, deaths nearly doubled — from just under 1,600 in 2018 to almost 3,000 in 2021. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, over 38,000 people have died in Canada from opioid-related overdoses since 2016.

Arnold and Tookenay said that the key to their recovery was access to detox and treatment — something they say is in short supply in Thunder Bay. The city has just 25 detox beds for drugs and alcohol.

LISTEN | The backlash against safe supply:[

Front Burner24:23‘The Drugs Store,’ safe supply, and its backlash

More resources needed, first responders say

Paramedics Jameson Shortreed and Kescia Yeomans, who work for Superior North EMS, see the opioid crisis in Thunder Bay at ground level.

They said that over the past five years, they’ve seen the number of opioid-related calls soar from around 20 a month to roughly 100 in some months.

“For me, it’s disappointing and it’s frustrating because you can see what the solution would be and action [is] not being taken,” said Yeomans.

“Thunder Bay is a beautiful city. It has a lot to offer … We don’t want to be known as the murder capital, the drug capital, anything like that. So I feel like if people can understand that it is a [matter] of funding and resources and things like that … The solutions are there. We just need people who are in power to make those proper … right decisions.”

Shortreed said the thing Thunder Bay needs most now is more investment in detox beds.

“I’ve called down to our detox facility numerous times,” he said. “Once, maybe twice in my career I think I’ve actually gotten a spot for somebody there.”

Carolyn Karle, a Thunder Bay resident, lost her daughter to an overdose after a long period of sobriety. That inspired her to form an organization to raise money to help support people addicted to drugs, along with their families.

“I sometimes think that I’ve been advocating at every level of government … but really, should the moms who have lost their children be the ones to start the changes?” she told The House.

Governments should work to open far more treatment centres, Karle said, and fund services that support addicted people throughout the stages of recovery.

Two paramedics unload a stretcher from an ambulance.

Thunder Bay paramedics Jameson Shortreed and Kescia Yeomans. (Jennifer Chevalier/CBC)

Thunder Bay does have a supervised consumption site. Juanita Lawson is the CEO of NorWest Community Health Centres, which runs the facility. She said treatment beds can only do so much.

“Treatment is necessary, but if we continue to not offer the services people need to stay alive, why have treatment beds if people are dying as a result of a toxic drug supply?” she said. NorWest began a safer supply pilot program last year.

Lawson and one of her colleagues, Brittany D’Angelo, told The House about some of the political backlash against the broader push for safer supply. Prominent Conservative politicians have attacked the idea of safe supply.

Why the toxic drug crisis in Thunder Bay is so bad

Featured VideoKyle Arnold, a recovering drug addict, now works to help others recover. As part of a special episode of CBC’s The House, he tells Catherine Cullen why the situation in Thunder Bay, Ont., has become so severe.

“We’re not enabling them. We’re trying to keep them alive long enough to have some stability in their life, [so] they can hopefully have some of the privileges that you and I have,” D’Angelo said.

Based on conversations with officials and frontline workers in Thunder Bay, it’s clear a lack of resources is a major roadblock to addressing the problems of drugs and crime. Municipal council member Kristen Oliver said Thunder Bay has had to divert funding from recreation to law enforcement.

“This is a health care crisis, this is a social crisis, but it’s being borne on the backs of the municipal property taxpayer,” she told Cullen.

“We continue to talk about Thunder Bay like it’s the only place that this is happening, which I find is a disservice to the rest of the province and this country. Because this is a provincial problem, this is a national problem.”

Police in search of more resources

Thunder Bay Chief of Police Darcy Fleury argued that law enforcement can’t be the only response to the crisis — even though the city is trying to access federal funding to help deal with the gang problem, which is closely linked to the drug trade.

“We can never enforce our way out of this. It’s a situation where we have to have community involvement, community engagement,” Fleury said.

The Thunder Bay police service has had to grapple with other issues, including allegations of racism, workplace harassment and misconduct, and concerns about police treatment of sudden death cases involving Indigenous people. Fleury became head of the force in May.

Mayor Ken Boshcoff told The House the path forward is a combination of safer supply and treatment. But he argued Thunder Bay, as a major hub in northern Ontario, is being overwhelmed by an influx of people looking to use city services.

“Over the coming months it will require us to really re-think our capacity and how we either increase the capacity or enlist more support, and that’s where the federal and provincial governments [come in],” he said. “We need them all.

“We’re trying to cope.”

Have you or those you know been affected by the opioid crisis in Canada? Get in touch. You can email us at

If you or those you know are in need of assistance, the Canada Drug Rehab Addiction Services Directory can be consulted at or by calling 1-866-462-6362.


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