Jamal Awl poses for a photo in Edmonton on Tuesday, May 25, 2021. Awl says it was difficult to return to a central Edmonton park after he watched three of his friends die there together from an apparent opioid overdose. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fakiha Baig

Jamal Awl poses for a photo in Edmonton on Tuesday, May 25, 2021. Awl says it was difficult to return to a central Edmonton park after he watched three of his friends die there together from an apparent opioid overdose. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fakiha Baig

‘Have a heart:’ Advocate says Alberta has to follow science to treat opioid crisis

Provincial government data shows opioid-related deaths almost doubled to 1,144 in 2020, up from 521 in 2019

Jamal Awl says it was difficult to return to a central Edmonton park after he watched three friends die together there last week from an apparent opioid overdose.

The 55-year-old construction worker says he talked to the three men at Kinistinâw Park, in the city’s downtown, about 1 p.m. Friday.

Awl says the trio regularly met at the park, which translates to ‘us three’ in Cree, for drinks. They had invited him to join them that day, but he declined because he quit drinking two years ago.

He ran some errands then went back three hours later, he says. He saw a girlfriend of one of the men fall from a park bench. He then noticed his three buddies on the ground.

“When I look I see the tragedy,” says Awl, pointing to the bench in the Boyle Street neighbourhood.

“I don’t sleep that night because I know them so long time. I don’t even sit in the park since Friday.”

Awl says one of them was blind and homeless, but described him as a brilliant man.

“I remember we used to sit together in -40 at homeless shelter,” Awl recalls.

“I can’t take it. Three people … dead at once in broad daylight.”

Alberta Health Services said paramedics attempted to resuscitate three people who were in cardiac arrest at the park, but they were pronounced dead at the scene.Health officials wouldn’t confirm their cause of death due to privacy concerns. Police said it was a non-criminal matter.

Katherine Thompson, a spokeswoman for Alberta Justice, said the office of the chief medical examiner also can’t share information about such cases.

Friends of the three men and an advocate said they believe they overdosed.

“If three people have died, and the medical officials describe it as a cardiac arrest, I would think that overdose is the most likely cause,” said Petra Schulz, founder of Moms Stop the Harm, a national network of families that works to reduce the stigma, harms and deaths related to substance abuse.

Schulz, whose son died from an overdose in 2014, said the network has noticed a 25 per cent increase in people who are grieving from overdose deaths reaching out for help in the last three months.

A federal report in December notes there were 1,628 apparent opioid toxicity deaths between April and June of last year, when the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic hit. It was the highest quarterly count since national surveillance began in 2016.

It also says Western Canada was the hardest hit.

In Alberta, provincial government data shows opioid-related deaths almost doubled to 1,144 in 2020, up from 521 in 2019.

Schulz said two brothers were also found dead after apparent overdoses inside their Edmonton apartment in early May.

She said front-line workers are traumatized and overwhelmed, and she’s angry at the government.

“There’s just not enough done about it,” she said. “They have cut services that keep people safe, such as safe consumption sites. They are not addressing the drug supply that has become increasingly toxic.”

Schulz said the government needs to “have a heart” and look to harm reduction.

“These deaths are preventable,” she said. “This needs to end. We cannot allow for this to go on.”

Alberta’s department of mental health and addictions said the government is working with Edmonton police and other agencies to address the issue.

“Pandemic-related measures continue to take a toll on people struggling with addiction,” spokesman Justin Marshall said in an email.

“We are committed to a high quality and easily accessible system of care for both mental health and addiction that includes a full continuum of supports, including services to reduce harm.”

As Awl stares at the park bench where he lost his friends, he says he knows too many people who have died from overdoses.

“One moment they’re alive,” he says. “The next moment, they’re gone and nobody cares.”


This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Fakiha Baig, The Canadian Press

opioidsoverdose crisis

Just Posted

Alberta premier Jason Kenney announced the province's reopening plan late last month and moved into Stage 1 of that plan Tuesday. (photography by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Travel prizes added to Alberta’s vaccine lottery

More than 40 travel rewards available for those who are fully vaccinated

Stettler town hall
Town approves Canada Day fireworks show, using phase two health restrictions

The funding for the fireworks show has already been allocated

Castor Evangelical Missionary Church Pastor Brent Siemens, celebrating five years in Castor, reflects on the journey that brought him to the community. Kevin J. Sabo photo
Castor pastor celebrates five years of serving the community

Brent Siemens is the pastor of Castor’s Evangelical Missionary Church

(Advocate file photo)
Red Deer down to 102 active COVID-19 cases

Central zone has 332 cases with 26 in hospital and five in ICU

People watch a car burn during a riot following game 7 of the NHL Stanley Cup final in downtown Vancouver, B.C., in this June 15, 2011 photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Geoff Howe
10 years ago: Where were you during the 2011 Vancouver Stanley Cup Riots?

Smashed-in storefronts, looting, garbage can fires and overturned cars some of the damage remembered today

A nurse prepares a shot of the COVID-19 vaccine at the Yukon Convention Centre in Whitehorse on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mike Thomas
Vancouver couple pleads guilty to breaking Yukon COVID rules, travelling for vaccine

Chief Judge Michael Cozens agreed with a joint sentencing submission,

People line up to get their COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre, Thursday, June 10, 2021 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Vaccines, low COVID case counts increase Father’s Day hope, but risk is still there

Expert says people will have to do their own risk calculus before popping in on Papa

COVID-related trash is washing up on shorelines across the world, including Coldstream’s Kal Beach, as pictured in this May 2021 photograph. (Jennifer Smith - Black Press)
Shoreline cleanup finds COVID-related trash increased during height of the pandemic

Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup reports litter from single-use food packaging nearly doubled

Doctor David Vallejo and his fiancee Doctor Mavelin Bonilla hold photos of themselves working, as they kiss at their home in Quito, Ecuador, Wednesday, June 9, 2021. Doctor Vallejo and Doctor Bonilla suspended their wedding in order to tend to COVID-19 patients and in the process Vallejo got sick himself with the disease, ending up in an ICU for several days. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)
Love, sacrifice and surviving COVID-19: one couple’s story

COVID hits Ecuadorian doctors who delayed wedding to treat sick

Three calves were recently shot dead in Lacombe County near Mirror. (Photo from Facebook)
Calves shot and left for dead in central Alberta

Bashaw RCMP investigating three shootings

Tuesday’s Lotto Max draw went unclaimed. (Photo courtesy of BCLC)
Tuesday’s Lotto Max draw went unclaimed. (Photo courtesy of BCLC)
Lotto Max jackpot goes unclaimed again

42 of the 64 Maxmillion prizes of $1 million were won, the majority were sold in Ontario

FILE - This July 6, 2017 file photo shows prescription drugs in a glass flask at the state crime lab in Taylorsville, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)
Contaminants in generic drugs may cause long-term harm to DNA: B.C. researcher

Scientist says findings suggest high volume overseas facilities require strict regulation

(Black Press Media file)
Dirty money: Canadian currency the most germ-filled in the world, survey suggests

Canadian plastic currency was found to contain 209 bacterial cultures

Most Read