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Angry families confront N.L. government, demand action on drug deaths

About 100 people gathered at Confederation Building in St. John's on Wednesday to demand the provincial government do something about the number of people who have died of suspected drug overdoses in recent months.

At least 11 people died of suspected drug overdoses in July and August

Angry families confront N.L. justice minister over drug deaths

8 months ago
Duration 2:30
About 100 people gathered at a rally in St. John's to push the government to do more to deal with a growing addiction and overdose problem.

About 100 people gathered at Confederation Building in St. John's on Wednesday to demand the provincial government do something about the number of people who have died of suspected drug overdoses in recent months.

The rally was organized by Tina Olivero, a St. John's mother who lost her 20-year-old son, Ben, to an overdose in July.

Ben Olivero was one of at least 11 people to die of suspected drug overdoses between July and August in Newfoundland and Labrador, based on reports from the provincial chief medical officer and harm reduction advocates, who fear some of those deaths are likely the result of cocaine laced with fentanyl, which police warned the public about in July.

Many held up signs in support of Olivero and calling on the provincial government to take action to help people.

Olivero said she's pushing for legislative change to privacy laws in Newfoundland and Labrador — which she says kept Ben from getting the help he needed — that could grant family members more control over the treatment of their loved ones.

Olivero told the crowd she will be meeting with several ministers Thursday to talk about specific needs.

"Our ministers really have not taken action, that's why we are where we are today. But today is the last day, and tomorrow we start new," Olivero said over a loudspeaker.

Justice minister drowned out by shouts

Justice Minister John Hogan addressed the crowd, saying the Liberal government is committed to finding solutions.

"[It's] an important day, and a day that's needed to talk about the issue of addictions and illness and mental health," Hogan said.

"No different than treating cancer or a broken leg, addictions and mental health need to be treated the same way as well."

Hogan told the crowd police can't be the end-all solution — and was quickly drowned out by members of the crowd asking for direct support from government.

A woman holds a sign that says people are dying help
About 100 people gathered on the steps of Confederation Building in St. John's in August to call on the provincial government to do something to prevent drug overdose deaths. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

"We all want to know what your [plan] is. You're the minister of justice. You work for us," one woman said.

"It's a systemic problem that has been placed upon our people. And we're a small island, and this not, not ever, be happening to our people.… We are sinking, and our government is not throwing us anything to float with."

Another woman, holding a tapestry with a photo of her son, called for Hogan's resignation. She also called for Premier Andrew Furey, who wasn't at the rally, to take the issue seriously.

"If you can't give us something to help, you should just step down and go," the woman said, screaming at Hogan. "We need help now, my son is dead."

A man in black coat through a crowd
Health Minister Tom Osborne told the crowd he's willing to meet with anyone who wants to share their experience with addictions, but a woman in the crowd told him she tried — and was ignored. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

Health Minister Tom Osborne told the crowd he wouldn't give out promises but said work is being done across government departments.

"One of the things that we need to do is break down the silos. Because this needs the attention of Health, of Justice, of [Children's, Seniors and Social Development], of Education," Osborne said. 

"We need more wraparound services, and we understand that.… Addictions is not a choice. It is health care."

WATCH | Hear from people who spoke at the rally:

Hear from people who told the N.L. government they need help in the battle against addiction

8 months ago
Duration 2:19
An emotional crowd stood outside Confederation Building on Wednesday to push the government to do something to prevent drug overdose deaths.

Osborne said he would meet with anyone to hear their experiences, but as he left the microphone, he was confronted by a woman in the crowd saying she has tried to do just that but got no response.

"You didn't answer my calls," said the woman, who told Osborne her drug-addicted daughter had been held at the women's correctional centre in Clarenville for three months when what she needed was mental health care. "I've been up to your office, and no one has listened."

Grief dominates rally

Family members of people who died from overdose and addiction told CBC News they wanted to see more access to psychologists and counsellors, better housing and more treatment options.

Joan Dunphy's 24-year-old grandson, Tyler Dove, died three weeks ago.

Dunphy says he was using cocaine at the time, which the family suspects was contaminated by fentanyl.

Signs in a crowd that say tyler dove with pictures
Tyler Dove's family say he needed counselling and stable housing, and they believe the lack of support led to his recent death by overdose. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

"We buried him a few days ago," Dunphy said quietly. "So we're here in his name to try and change the help for drug-addicted young people. And there is no help. They get out of jail or the hospital and they get back on the street."

Dove had recently lost his mother and was grappling with childhood trauma as well as addiction, the family said. 

"I think if Tyler had been given some counselling. If he had been given a place to live that wasn't a rooming house with people with the same issues and no help," Dunphy said, "I think he would have been able to change."

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With files from Henrike Wilhelm and Malone Mullin

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