[August 2020]

“In 2017, there were an estimated 4,000 opioid related overdose deaths in Canada. To put this in perspective, more people died of opioid overdoses in 2017 than died of HIV during the height of the HIV epidemic. Downtown Toronto has been hit particularly hard by the crisis, with the number of overdose deaths more than doubling between 2016 and 2017. Ryerson University is situated in the centre of the Toronto overdose crisis, with the surrounding neighbourhoods having the highest number of calls to paramedic services for opioid-related overdoses.” – Harm Reduction Policy Recommendations Ryerson University 2018, Prepared by Alannah Fricker with help from Kim Bailey, Christopher Visser, and Allan Macdonald

The number of overdose deaths has steadily been increasing and communities are organizing in response. These deaths were and are fully preventable if enough voices pressure the Federal and Provincial Governments to enact drug policy reforms.

In 2019, Ontario passed British Columbia’s record as the province with the most overdose deaths in a single year. Ontario now averages 55 overdose deaths every week.

Since 2016, over 15,000 people have died due to apparent opioid-related overdose in Canada. 

Under COVID-19

At least 27 people in Toronto died of suspected opioid overdose-related deaths in July, the City says this is the highest number of deaths recorded in a month since it began collecting this data.

In the month of July, more people in Toronto died due to overdose than COVID-19. 

Harm Reduction

Harm reduction is a strategy that values people where they’re at. Harm reduction frameworks towards the crisis prioritize keeping people who are living at risk of overdose alive, and recognize that people need support that meets their current needs. Prohibition, and the criminalization of people who use drugs have been harmful policies with many damaging repercussions, including disproportionate incarceration rates of Black people and Indigenous people.

Clean needle exchanges and drug sample testing are examples of harm reduction efforts that work to prevent overdose. Safer drug supply initiatives work by giving people living at risk of overdose an alternative to unknown supplies. 

Between 2017 and 2019, Consumption Sites across Canada saw around 2 million visits and attended to around 15,000 overdoses, with no reported fatalities on-site. Located near Ryerson, The Works is a Supervised Consumption Site with peer workers available to administer the lifesaving opioid-antagonist medication Naloxone

The Provincial response 

After taking office, the Ford Government froze funding to consumption sites in Ontario, then defunded two of them, initiating an arbitrary cap allowing only 21 sites for the entire province.  

Despite escalating overdose deaths during COVID and years of effort from harm reductionists to pressure the Ontario government to change their policy, the Ontario government still hasn’t acted to expand access to any safer supply initiatives. 

Students for Sensible Drug Policy 

CSSDP Ryerson is the Ryerson-based chapter of a national student group called Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy. CSSDP works within academic institutions to self-educate, relay information to their peers, raise awareness, and pressure academic and government administrators to take action in their capacity towards ending the drug war, the overdose crisis, and the stigmatization of people who use drugs. They organize to call for the abolition of carceral policies and laws, and legislative action to institute harm reduction frameworks in policy solutions. 

The Good Samaritan Act

The Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act  was passed in 2017 in response to the crisis and offers some legal protection for anyone who calls 911 in response to an overdose. The Act applies to anyone seeking emergency support, including the person experiencing an overdose. The Act ensures that anyone seeking help cannot be charged for possession of drugs. 

Ways we can help

  • Call or email your City Councillor, your Member of Provincial Parliament, and your Member of Parliament. Tell them that you’re demanding urgent action on the overdose crisis including funding for consumption sites and expanded access to safe supply programs. 
  • Support people already doing the work. Show solidarity, and amplify the voices of harm reductionists.
  • Attend rallies and protests in your area to show your support.
  • Post on social media, create your own artistic message, share articles, information, and resources so that others can learn more. 
  • Educate yourself about the signs of an overdose. Get Naloxone trained and encourage others to do the same. Carry Naloxone with you, it’s available for free at most pharmacies and it could save a life.
  • Approach conversations about people who use drugs with compassion, openness, and kindness. 

A few groups to follow to find out more

Toronto Overdose Prevention Society 

Toronto Harm Reduction Alliance

COUNTERfit Womens’ Harm Reduction Program

Ontario Harm Reduction Network

Ontario Aboriginal HIV/AIDS Strategy

Windsor Overdose Prevention

Overdose Prevention Ottawa

Prairie Harm Reduction 

Sea To Sky Community Action Team

BC/Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors

Insite Vancouver

Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users

Manitoba Harm Reduction Network

Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs

Canadian Association for Safe Supply

Canadian Drug Policy Coalition

Moms Stop The Harm

More information

How the Pandemic Hit People Who Use Drugs, in Their Own Words

Defying the War on Drugs

Fentanyl and the 14th Floor: The Life and Death of Justin Lidstone

Les Harper and Indigenous Harm Reduction at South Riverdale Community Health Centre.

Policing the Opioid Crisis

How Structural Violence, Prohibition, and Stigma Have Paralyzed North American Responses to Opioid Overdose

“Huyer noted that nearly 60% of people dying from overdoses are between the ages of 25 and 44. “If you look at the number of life years lost, it’s substantial,” he said. “And these people are in what many would say the prime of their lives. And to see that loss, it’s such a significant thing for them, but also for their families and society in general.”

Social Determinants of Health

Possible benefits of providing safe supply of substance to people who use drugs during public health emergencies such as the COVID 19 pandemic.

Online harm reduction during COVID-19 lockdown

Coverage of the overdose crisis by The Walrus

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will not commit to decriminalizing the simple possession of drugs, despite mounting pressure to do so in order to address the country’s overdose crisis.

How the Opioid Crisis Is Different in Small Communities

Deadly overdoses are rocking Canada’s poorest neighbourhood under lockdown

Racism and Drug Policy 

Life expectancy at birth did not increase from 2016 to 2017, a first in over four decades. This was largely attributable to the opioid crisis.

More Than an Overdose: ‘For My Dad’

Changing the Drug Policy Narrative 

More resources

From CSSDP Ryerson

City of Toronto: 

Where to get harm reduction services and supplies:  https://www.toronto.ca/community-people/health-wellness-care/health-programs-advice/harm-reduction-supplies-and-locations/

Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre:


St. Stephen’s Community House 

Substance Use support page: https://www.sschto.ca/Adults/Addictions 

Substance Abuse Program for African Canadian and Caribbean Youth (SAPACCY) at CAMH: https://www.camh.ca/en/your-care/programs-and-services/substance-use-program-for-african-canadian-caribbean-youth 


LOFT TAY Program for youth under 26 years old dealing with mental health and/or substance use:

Website: https://www.loftcs.org/need-services/ 

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pg/LOFT-TAY-Program-662340250579314/about/?ref=page_internal 

Rapid Access Addiction Clinics: 

Toronto Western: https://www.uhn.ca/MCC/PatientsFamilies/Clinics_Tests/Rapid_Access_Addiction_Medicine 

St. Michael’s: http://www.stmichaelshospital.com/programs/mentalhealth/rapid-access-clinic.php