Detox intake manager voices concerns about drug epidemic in northwestern Ontario

By Elisa Nguyen
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Stanford Kuzanga says it feels “crushing” to tell an individual he cannot help them, only to learn days later that they have died for the very reason they sought support.

As a detox intake manager at the Giishkaandago’Ikwe Health Services in Fort Frances, Kuzanga has a front row seat to how the drug epidemic is unfolding in northwestern Ontario.

He says he sees the local opioid and drug epidemic spiralling out of control and feels that the community is becoming increasingly desensitized to the issues at hand.

Trained as a nurse in England, he moved to Canada in 2010. For the rest of his career, Kuzanga plans to advocate for young people struggling with drug use.

Kuzanga’s job requires him to speak with individuals struggling with substance abuse and decide whether the person is eligible to move forward with receiving detox treatments. If he sees that they are eligible, he initiates the treatment process through referrals to other health services.

At times, Kuzanga is forced to tell individuals that he cannot help them, often due to parameters set by the organization and out of his control. He specifies that those who are turned away often face unstable mental health conditions or active suicidal tendencies.

Unfortunately, many deaths take place even after some individuals receive detox treatment. Sometimes, individuals rebound back to drugs and die only days after they have been responding well to treatments.

Kuzanga recognizes that the root causes of drug use are complex and unseen on the surface. Many young users have been taken advantage of, trafficked, abandoned by family, suffer from mental illness, and have nowhere to turn.

The fabric of the community is changing too, he says. Kuzanga is starting to see grandparents well into their older years becoming guardians of young children who recently lost their parents from drug overdose. He believes that more awareness and de-stigmatization is needed in all corners of the community.

Thinking back to his time in Africa, the continent where he was born and raised until his teenage years, Kuzanga recalls a time when the failure to face a problem worsened the issue and took many lives — including the lives of his three brothers.

In the early ’90s, he says several countries in the African savanna denied to see HIV as a problem.

“HIV ravaged and controlled, especially in the working class people,” Kuzanga said. “Life expectancy for men was like 35 and for women was about 38 to 42. So by the time the government started opening their eyes, it was a case where they could not control it.”

While the HIV epidemic was different in nature to the opioid epidemic today, Kuzanga says he fears a lack of urgent action to address current issues in northern Ontario could cause worse issues in the future, similar to what history has demonstrated could happen.

Eager to find a solution, he hopes that sharing his experienceswill spur more discourse within the local community.

“The opioid epidemic is unrestrained and it is destroying people’s lives. The communities are just shattered,” he said. “It feels like society is at a crosswind and they have become numb to the problem and so desensitized and decoupled from the reality that there is a problem in the community.”

Kuzanga says that addressing the drug epidemic requires small changes in all areas in society.

Seeing that many young people that seek detox treatment have not completed Grade 12, he says the education system could better support vulnerable students in their development through accommodations such as providing extra time to complete tests or programs that provide additional learning support.

In the legal system, Kuzanga says that young individuals convicted for possession of drugs should be given a second chance. Having a police record at a young age is a barrier to finding employment or better work opportunities, he says. Furthermore, he believes that more focus should be placed on nurturing the mental state of young people facing addictions.

“The trend I’m seeing is these kids are spending more time in front of a judge and within the police system than they are either with counsellors that can help them, medical staff, or nursing staff that can help,” he said.

Discourse, he says, should be had with all professionals and providers in the community. If workers from the legal justice system, policing, municipal leaders, teachers, and health providers all shared their experiences and ideas, the community could get one step closer to fighting the drug epidemic.

“We need to collectively figure out how, as a community, not as an individual, how we can help,” Kuzanga said. “The first thing is to acknowledge that there is a problem. When you have acknowledged that there is a problem, you can formulate plans or policies and put them in place.”