News

The Death Toll for Opioid Deaths Last Year in Canada: 2,458

Experts say the number highlights the lack of action from the federal government.

by Allison Tierney
07 June 2017, 10:22pm

People advocating for legal heroin march in the streets of Vancouver. Photo by Jackie Dives

Official numbers showing how many opioid-related deaths happened in 2016 have been released: At least 2,458 in Canada died last year. That's about seven people a day. But those on the frontlines say that the true number of deaths in which opioids such as fentanyl were involved are likely higher.

The official 2016 national numbers completely left out any data from one of Canada's most populous provinces, Quebec, and used 2015 numbers for Ontario and Newfoundland and Labrador.

"We know hundreds of people who've probably died in Quebec as well," said Zoë Dodd, a frontline worker in who works at the South Riverdale Community Health Centre in Toronto. She estimated that the number is actually closer to 3,000 for opioid-related deaths across Canada last year.

"What's really disappointing is OK, you put those numbers out there, and then what?" Dodd told VICE. "What is the reaction? For me, that is what I want to hear from this government. Close to 3,000 people is a national emergency, and it's about time they called for one."

According to the newly released official numbers, rates of opioid-related deaths are especially high in Western Canada: Yukon, Northwest Territories, Alberta, and British Columbia.

"The near-record number of drug overdose deaths in the fentanyl crisis is a bloodbath in all corners of Vancouver with no end in sight," Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson said in a statement. Vancouver is often referred to as ground zero of Canada's opioid crisis, where multiple drug-related deaths occur daily on average.

Dr. Hakique Virani, a public health and addictions specialist in Alberta, said that the official report on opioid-related deaths across Canada is simply a death toll and doesn't include additional information that could be helpful.

"All this tells us is that yes, these numbers are still bad. But the level of detail you'd want to have in a report like that would include more than just mortality," he told VICE. "Who is dying? We know there are particularly vulnerable populations… It's not a particularly useful report in that sense."

During the SARS outbreak in Canada, often pointed to as an example of the county's public health response, 44 died overall. The death toll of the opioid crisis in Canada has now even surpassed peak levels of mortality seen during the AIDS crisis in the country.

"This is just a really upsetting example of public health infrastructure failing again. This is exactly the type of public health crisis that the post-SARS commissions were referring to—not just communicable disease responses, but any public health threat," Dr. Virani said. Being able to enact a response quickly in a coordinated fashion across the country is a hallmark of good public health—they've not done that."

Dodd is also concerned about the lack of proper resources for collecting data on how many people have died, including those affecting coroner's offices. She said this shows "huge gaps" in the system.

"I'm angry about how many people died. I'm also angry knowing that we are most likely going to see more people dead this year than last year—the numbers have not slowed down," Dodd said.

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