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‘It’s life or death for them:’ Thunder Bay woman opens her home for people to detox

TORONTO — A woman in Thunder Bay, Ont., has opened her home to people seeking to detox and enter recovery from substance abuse, as the city’s withdrawal program has limited beds in the midst of an ongoing national opioid crisis.

Balmoral Centre is Thunder Bay’s sole withdrawal management program, which serves approximately 3000 people per year and turns away that many as well, according to the St. Joseph’s Care Group, which runs the centre.

Brenda Letourneau has opened up her own home to people seeking recovery to help fill the gap in care.

“It’s very necessary when someone is looking to get clean from drugs – they need help in that moment, they can’t wait,” Letourneau said on CTV’s Your Morning Wednesday. “When someone reaches out for help, it’s life or death for them.”

Letourneau herself has been in recovery for 13 years, and knows what people need most during the withdrawal period.

She estimates 20 people detoxed on her couch in the last year.

“Its pretty sombre, people are pretty defeated when they come – they’re just looking for somewhere to be safe, somewhere to be cared for – that’s essentially what I am providing,” she said. “A lot of times they’ll just be sleeping, be uncomfortable, have to be on the couch or use the bathroom a lot, depending on what they are detoxing from.”

Thunder Bay and northern Ontario is one of the most affected regions by the opioid crisis and the toxic drug supply issue.

Thunder Bay’s Drug Strategy Report outlines how crisis emergency room visits for mental health and substance-related issues have skyrocketed, with a 250 per cent increase from 2006 to 2011 alone.

Letourneau said 40 people she knows personally have died in the last two years, with approximately 99 people in Thunder Bay dying of drug-related overdoses in 2020.

The Balmoral Centre withdrawal program only has 25 beds.

“When I first got clean in 2008 and I got out of those beds only three of them are for female [patients] and really only two of them are available for self-referrals, and that hasn’t changed in 13 years,” Letourneau said. “We have unique needs in the north and we service a large geographical area, so I am not sure why there isn’t more help available, not only in the detox but also there’s a bottle neck when people are detoxed and not able to get into a treatment program for people that want to recover.”

The crisis in the north is not a new issue. This past spring a proposal was submitted to the Ontario Ministry of Health for a new 40-bed mental health and addictions centre.

There has been no movement since.

Your Morning reached out to the provincial government and received a statement from a spokesperson for the associate minister of mental health and addictions which said the province has made “unprecedented investments totalling over $40 million in new, ongoing annualized funding specifically to address the needs of those living with mental health and addiction challenges across Northern Ontario.”

The statement did not address the specific questions regarding the new treatment centre proposed for Thunder Bay.

Letourneau wants to see more funding and acknowledgement from the government that the north is dealing with a crisis.

“There are many people reaching out but we haven’t heard back [from the government]. The toxic drug supply has meant people are dying at alarming rates…our average of death from overdose is four times that of the province of Ontario,” Letourneau said.

She plans to continue helping those on their road to recovery.

“It gives me a sense of purpose, of giving back,” Letourneau said. “I did a lot of damage in my active addiction, it helps me stay clean…I’m also in a unique position to give the care and compassion to a lot people who are discriminated against because of this disease.

“It’s a good example to my family, and my children, that we are part of the community.” 

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