MONTREAL — Eight overdoses over a few hours in downtown Montreal this weekend reflect how homeless Indigenous people have started consuming hard and unsafe street drugs, says the head of a shelter that serves the vulnerable community.
The overdoses, which sent six people to hospital, are being investigated by public health authorities and police.
Heather Johnston, executive director of Projets Autochtones du Québec, which runs a shelter for Indigenous people in downtown Montreal, said her staff were the first to respond on Sunday with naloxone, a drug that temporarily reverses the effects of opioid overdoses.
"There was a community member who ran up to the shelter, grabbed our staff – who grabbed their naloxone kits – who went down to where the incident took place, administered naloxone and called 911," she said in an interview Monday.
Johnston said six people who overdosed on Sunday used her organization's services. "My understanding is there were two people who were not Indigenous and the rest are all people who are from the Indigenous community who we know and who are staying at the shelter," she said.
The shelter allows people to consume cannabis and alcohol in a tent next door that is heated in the winter. She said in the last few years her clientele has started consuming hard drugs.
"Before the pandemic, the primary consumption patterns that we saw in the part of the Indigenous community that we serve was alcohol and that started to change over the pandemic," she said.
A spokesman for Urgences-santé, Montreal's ambulance service, said that following a 911 call shortly after 4 p.m. on Sunday, paramedics treated six people for overdoses. Four of them, including two who were in critical condition, were sent to hospital. Following a second 911 call – about an hour later from the same location – paramedics treated another two people, who were also sent to hospital, Sébastien Coulombe said.
As of Monday morning, Montreal police said one person remained in critical condition and the rest were out of danger.
Johnston said drug use has become more dangerous in Montreal. "People are vulnerable because the supply simply isn't safe and people are vulnerable because they're not housed, because there's a lot of obstacles to staying safe in that kind of situation," she said.
Last November, she said, a 30-year-old man at the shelter who had been struggling with addiction and mental health for most of his life died of an overdose. "That was a big wake-up call and a big shock. Since then we've had several other overdoses and a couple of deaths," she said.
Montreal public health said it is investigating to evaluate the risk to the public. "This situation is extremely concerning," Luc Fortin, a public health spokesman, wrote in an email.
He said it's not uncommon for a large number of people to overdose in one day, because of the contamination of street drugs with substances such as as fentanyl, xylazine or nitazenes. Like fentanyl, nitazenes are powerful synthetic opioids; xylazine is a potent sedative.
Data from Montreal public health shows that in August, there were 11 overdoses reported to public health authorities, the highest number in a single month since October 2020. There were 172 deaths from overdoses during the 12-month period ending March 31, 2023. There were 134 the year before and 170 deaths during the equivalent period in 2020-21.
Among those deaths, the coroner's office found traces of fentanyl in 42 cases during the 2022-23 period, according to preliminary public health data. In 2021-22, there were 46 deaths linked to fentanyl, up from 29 the year before and 11 in 2019-20.
Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé told reporters Monday in Montreal he's been observing the opioid crisis across Canada and that his government is developing a plan informed by the experiences of other provinces.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 11, 2023.
Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press