Belleville, Ont., declared an emergency after 23 overdoses in a single day in early February. The drug crisis has hit small communities across Canada. Pixabay

Parish lends a hand with Belleville’s drug crisis

  • February 14, 2024

St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church in Belleville, Ont., is just a short walk from where a spate of Feb. 6-7 drug overdoses provoked Mayor Neil Ellis to issue a state of emergency for the small town in Eastern Ontario.

Fr. Richard Whalen, pastor of the active downtown church, told The Catholic Register in an email that though the 23 overdoses in as many hours are shocking, they aren’t surprising.

“The drug crisis is not new here and I suspect in most smaller cities, although the magnitude of the crisis continues to grow,” Whalen said.

Hastings-Quinte paramedic Chief Carl Bowker echoed Whalen’s observation in a recent media interview.

“The opioid crisis just didn’t show up on Tuesday. It was the tainted drugs that highlighted it,” said Bowker.

Like many smaller Canadian cities, Belleville has struggled to cope with a growing homeless problem. In April 2021, a city count found that there were roughly 180 homeless people in Belleville, which has a population of 60,000.

Whalen detailed the many community initiatives that are already in place.

“Individuals from our congregation and others have been volunteering in various ways through the outreaches in the downtown core. Grace Inn shelter which is just down the street from our church, the meal program at the Salvation Army building on the same block as our church, the meal program and daytime shelter program offered at Bridge Street United Church on the next block, and the nighttime overflow shelter at the old police station on Dundas Street.”

Whalen said that while St. Michael’s has “no specific on-site outreach because of the variety of outreaches in the immediate neighbourhood,” the parish is “deeply aware of the presence of not only addicts but the many people who wander our streets without a home.”

Ellis declared an addiction, mental health and homelessness emergency on Feb. 8. The small town has become the most recent example of a Canadian opioid crisis expanding well beyond metropolitan Vancouver and Toronto.

In 2020, the B.C. Coroner’s Service noted that small communities experienced a radical increase in the number of overdose calls to 911. The coastal towns of Duncan, Campbell River, Powell River and Courtenay all saw increases above 60 per cent.

Unfortunately, the deadly uptick didn’t end with the pandemic restrictions. According to the B.C. government, the province saw a 2023 average of nearly seven overdose deaths per day, which equated to five-per-cent more deaths than the previous high of 2,383 recorded a year earlier.

Public-health authorities blame the steady rise in opioid-related deaths on the prevalence of fentanyl, a substance 100 times more potent than morphine. With reports of new and deadlier substances making their way onto the Canadian streets, the numbers of fatalities is bound to increase.

On Feb. 11, Quebec public health issued a warning of a synthetic opioid 25 times the toxicity of fentanyl. The City of Ottawa issued a Feb. 9 alert “to warn residents about the risk of overdose related to the toxicity of the unregulated drug supply.”

For Whalen and his parishioners, situated in the heart of Belleville, what appears to be an intractable problem is an occasion for holding out a helping hand.

“When such people who are needy appear at our church, we deal with them as compassionately as possible. The recent crisis has elicited interest from our parishioners who genuinely wish to help. We will walk forward prayerfully and generously to help as the opportunities arise,” said Whalen.

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