FORT FRANCES — Mayor Andrew Hallikas is calling for more to be done to address the opioid crisis in the region.
The Northwestern Health Unit released a report on opioids in February and presented it to Fort Frances council. A discussion about it was supposed to take place at this week’s meeting but was pushed to a future one. Hallikas said he and another councillor are considering introducing a motion at an upcoming council meeting to try and address some of the aspects of it.
“My reaction when I saw the report was one of shock,” he said in an interview this week. “Until recently, Northwestern Ontario rates for opioid statistics were quite similar to the rest of the province. But in 2021 the Northwestern health unit rate for opioid related death was double the provincial rate. That's an astounding increase.”
He said opioid-related hospitalization rates were similar to provincial numbers until about 2021 and now they're nearly 1.5 times higher than the provincial rate.
He added emergency room visits had also been comparable to provincial average, and they are now 53 per cent higher according to the report. Between 2016 and 2021, the rate in northwestern Ontario of emergency-related visits increased by more than 400 per cent.
“Those are incredibly shocking statistics where we're seeing a dramatic change in what's happening in our area, recently since 2021,” he said.
He said the health unit was doing an excellent job with their limited resources in a really difficult situation.
“Although the report did not have good news, it showed me that they were staying in touch with what's happening in Northwestern Ontario in terms of the opioid crisis,” the mayor said.
Hallikas said he doesn’t know if anybody alone can solve the problem because of its complexity and there needs to be coordination, which he doesn't see happening right now.
“I think it's going to take people getting out of their silos and working together doing a real analysis of what needs to be done by whom,” he said.
He said the non-profit and social service organizations are doing a really good job but they need resources and more funding from the provincial and federal governments.
“It's going to take an all of government approach and the approach it can't be from the bottom up. It has to be from the top down,” he said. “There needs to be an overarching plan in place and right now, we're not getting that.”
“I see some really wonderful groups of people, really dedicated people, but they're each working at their little corner of the puzzle, but there's nobody in charge overall looking at the big picture and coordinating,” he said.
“You can't just throw money at it,” he said. “You can't jail your way out of it.”
Hallikas said these are the people that are marginalized in our society, these are the people that need a lot of help and they've come into this situation for a variety of reasons.
"I don't want to see them demonized." he said. "I don't want to see them treated like non-humans, which is the approach that I've heard from some people."
He said there needs to be more collaborations like the one between the Rainy River District Social Services Administration Board and the local Canadian Mental Health Association branch, which purchased an old church and updated it for use as an overnight out of the cold shelter. Hallikas said part of the upgrades include safe beds and longer-term transitional units.
Hallikas said Fort Frances also needs to work with its First Nations neighbours as well.
“Statistically, a significant percentage of the homeless people have come to us from area reserves and I really think we can't solve the problem unless we work with the First Nations,” he said.