As we enter the seventh year since British Columbia declared an opioid crisis, Fort Frances town councillor and social worker Mandi Olsen knows that there’s still a long road ahead. She and others continue to search for the answers to difficult questions such as how substance users get addicted in the first place, whether tougher sentences are a solution to the overdose crisis and what harm reduction can look like.
While a lot of progress has been made in the field of mental health and additions, many myths continue to persist and many who struggle with addictions continue to do so alone.
“I think one of the largest [myths] maybe is [that] drug users should be feared,” Olsen said. “We forget that these are our families, these might be our friends, these might be folks that we grew up with or went to school with.”
“And I don’t think that someone wakes up one day and just says, ‘you know what, today I want to be a substance user.’”
“Whether we’re healthy or we’re making not so great choices, [be mindful] that these are humans. We’re all humans and we’re having a human experience.”
Before she began her term as a town councillor with the town of Fort Frances – her first foray into municipal politics – Olsen garnered almost two decades of experience in social work, holding the position of vice-CEO at Binesiwag Center for Wellness (BCW). She and others on her staff feel that a broad base of support is needed to tackle the complex problem of drug addiction and mental health.
“It is going to take a community to come together to take care of our people and that community approach is how we’ve always taken care of each other,” she said.
Located in Southern Treaty #3, BCW was established in 2019 by two Indigenous women who experienced systemic violence.
“I’ve been in the field for just over 17 years. And my background primarily is in mental health and addictions,” Olsen said. “It just was my passion. And after trying a few different areas, working with youth and adults primarily is my interest. I do more mental health services now with youth. However, I’ve worked in the adult realm, and I still work with adults also from time to time.”
Olsen said that BCW “is small but fierce.” They have six employees, as of August last year, including herself and CEO Lori Flinders-McMillan, who work tirelessly using a range of expertise from both lived experience and post-secondary education to step in when there are shortages in mental health and addictions services.
“And the work that we do is pretty unique,” she said. “We kind of name ourselves as ‘filling the gaps.’”
“It’s everything from generalized mental health counseling, counseling services, addiction support system navigation, because we know a lot of the folks that we work with are caught in lots of different systems at the same time.”
She said that BCW also does a lot of work around “humanizing transactions” – a term she uses to discuss human trafficking and to ensure that the experiences around human trafficking resources are connected to the story of the individual, rather than “blanketing folks.” In addition, BCW creates safe spaces and provides resources and education for LGBTQIIA+ Folx and Two Spirit folks in the area.
“There wasn’t a safe space that we were aware of where [they] could come and just be themselves and really empower them and provide them resources specific to their needs,” she said.
A report from the British Columbia Select Standing Committee on Health showed that Indigenous populations, with an emphasis on women, are disproportionately impacted by the toxic drug supply.
Indigenous people died at 5.4 times the rate of other B.C. residents in 2021, with Indigenous women dying at 9.8 times the rate of other women in the province.
Substances such as drugs and alcohol can be a “quick-fix” for unpleasant feelings caused by anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or other disorders that point to trauma.
While the paths leading to drug abuse are varied, many individuals who fall into substance abuse deal with unresolved trauma.
“We’ve heard this time and time again. I don’t think that’s new,” said Olsen. “But, I think the experience for folks now is very different, because it’s so interwoven with real world experiences that they’re facing right now. For example, in our area, we’ve had a lot of loss in the last two years, especially around opioids coming back and coming back with a vengeance.”
Tampered drugs in the area has also led to unintentional overdoses, she said.
“You take that, and then you mix it with peers losing peers regularly. It makes the experience complex, because there’s so much grief there too. So trauma, mixed with grief, mixed with social issues that people are experiencing every single day—you know, housing and lack of housing, and some of the other social issues…being involved with justice is another complex system that a lot of the folks that we work with are experiencing, too.”
Regarding tampered drugs and unintentional overdoses, Olsen explained that mixing drugs has been prevalent in recent years for both first time substance users and long term substance users who are “chasing the next high.”
In addition, around three years ago, she said the organization saw a lot of younger demographics overdosing from smoking marijuana that was laced with highly dangerous drugs like fentanyl, one of the leading drugs related to overdose. Illicitly manufactured fentanyl is often added to other drugs and substances to make it more addictive and cheaper to produce.
In 2021, a mother protested outside the courthouse in Fort Frances after losing her 17-year old son to overdose. Dozens of supporters waved handmade posters and marched through town protesting against what she described as a lack of accountability for drug traffickers causing devastation through “fentanyl homicide.”
As someone with both personal lived experience with a substance user while also working in social work, Olsen sees the power of holding people accountable but also recognizes that the system’s way of doing things hasn’t always worked.
She said the debate about stricter penalties for drug offenses should first go back to the questions “why are substance users using?” and “why are dealers dealing?”
“Is it something they’ve been groomed into? Is it for economic purposes?” Olsen said. “The business of dealing is fast and hard, and folks are making a ton of cash. If we look to other countries that have been really proactive—overseas, [we know] that they’ve legalized all drugs in some countries just to disempower that system of that desire, or the game of dealing, and transitioning those service dollars back into social and healthy social things that that folks can do.”
Olsen doesn’t necessarily feel that stiffer penalties will solve the problem either.
“I don’t know that penalizing folks more will change anything. The reason I say that is because I think we see these experiences in our communities, when a drug dealer is locked up, and they do a year or two or even five years of time, there’s somebody that replaces them right away.”
“So it’s not really getting to the root. However, on the flip side of it, having lived experience with a family member with substance use, the reality is these folks are killing our families. So it’s kind of a catch 22.”
Olsen says we need to find a happy medium between prosecuting and helping those who need help.
“I think that’s the difficulty of being a helper in this process. It’s really trying to find that balance between both. Holding those accountable who need to be held accountable, while at the same time recognizing that the way that we’re doing things isn’t working on that large scale.”
“I don’t think there’s a single social system that can do this on their own,” Olsen said. “I really think we need to restructure our services and look at, how do we take this collaborative effort, and make sure that our people are taken care of.”
Olsen believes that multiple social systems need to work together to affect change.
“I think that there’s an opportunity right now in these systems to take a step back and go, ‘Okay, how can we do this collaboratively and make this a 24/7 support system?’ You know, there’s not one single social system that can really respond on their own. It needs to be all of us together.”
While Olsen thinks that the region is on a good trajectory regarding mental health support and resources, she also said we need to ensure all the pieces of the puzzle are there.
As an example, many individuals seeking support from BCW are connected to human trafficking but are also substance users. Olsen said that the individuals will receive support from a detox or treatment center for their substance use, but then have no safe home to return to.
“Maybe they’re making that choice to step out of the trafficking world and be safe—we don’t have a safe home. There is no safe home. There is no ‘next steps service’ for those folks coming in the door.”
“We need to make sure all the pieces of the puzzle are there. And for our area, that means really looking at those gaps and how we can fill them in the safest way possible.”
More resources have been introduced to the area, such as the RAAM clinic and the possibility of a supervised consumption site. At first mention of the words “harm reduction,” many may think about Naloxone or Narcan, used as an emergency treatment for opioid overdose and now distributed to health service providers, police services, and residents alike.
To Olsen, harm reduction can begin with a simple conversation and welcoming space.
“Harm reduction, to me, is genuinely having an open door policy and having safe spaces for folks to just come and be themselves. Maybe they’re not ready for counseling, or maybe they’re not ready to go clean yet. But harm reduction to me is that approach of, ‘the door’s open, come on in, have something to eat, let’s figure it out.’”
“Just because they’re using substances doesn’t mean that the rest of themselves isn’t valued either,” Olsen said.