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Robertson remembers community's overdose victims: 'This could happen to anybody'

Robertson knows three people who have died just this year from an overdose, he shares, plus others who perished in possible overdose circumstances but were not confirmed as such

For Scott Robertson, there is a personal connection to the victims claimed by the opioid crisis that developed even before his political life began.

While employed at the public library — often a refuge for under-housed people — Robertson got to know many who were living on the margins of society, whether due to addictions or mental health barriers or other challenges. 

His recent experiences have continued as a volunteer outreach worker in his own downtown North Bay neighbourhood and beyond, and Robertson has developed an insider's insight into the crisis while cherishing the human interactions and bonds formed.

Robertson knows three people who have died this year from an overdose, he shares, plus others who perished in possible overdose circumstances but were not confirmed as such. "These are people I knew from the library community and the outreach community. These were familiar faces in my neighbourhood that are gone now and aren't coming back. 

"The most important part of the outreach for me is putting a human face to it, meeting people, letting them know that we still see them as human beings. We still see them as neighbours, as friends and family."

See related: See an overdose? Call 911

Robertson, now the NDP candidate for Nipissing–Timiskaming, is quick to identify all it takes is a subtle change in life circumstances to lead folks down the spiral of increasingly potent and addictive drug abuse.

He sees overdose awareness as a call to action for our community and is seeing the urgency spreading as people die in increasing numbers locally — 19 in 2019, a then-record 51 in 2020, and this year's total has already surpassed last year's — and that is just the deaths officially documented as overdoses

"This could happen to anybody. This is an issue that is tearing at the fabric of our community," Robertson tells BayToday Tuesday, on Overdose Awareness Day. "We have people who are dying — our friends, our family, our neighbours."

He adds, "About two people are dying per week in our district as a result of an overdose and, it's preventable. There are things we can do to stop the loss of life." 

On Overdose Awareness Day, Robertson took a break from the campaign trail to honour the memories of those lost to overdose in our community. Robertson also participated Monday in one of many overdose awareness events organized by various community stakeholders and scheduled throughout the week.

"Our cultural attitudes and drug policy itself are contributing to these deaths. A shift in those areas could literally save people's lives in the short-term," offers Robertson.

International Overdose Awareness Day is held each August 31. The event aims to raise awareness about overdose and its preventability. The day is an opportunity to remember those who have died or sustained a permanent injury related to drug use.

Robertson has taken a leave of absence from his position as a city councillor to run in the Sept. 20 federal election but long before his leave, housing, addictions, and mental health were the topics most often raised to him by constituents.

"It's really important when you're talking about an issue like overdoses that is complex and has a lot of interchangeable parts — including health services in general — that we centre on the loss of life and focus on the fact that many members of our community are dying."

See related Village Media coverage of the opioid crisis: Naloxone kits 'saving a life today, changing it for tomorrow'

And: How two land-based programs are helping people heal

Robertson says reducing the stigma is one step all can take.

"People who use drugs are real people and members of our community and participate in many different ways," Robertson expresses. "The stigma is a big part of what drives people to the margins of society. The stigma is a big part of what makes life dangerous for people who use drugs.

"The NDP — and I — believe ending the criminalization and stigma of addiction is a really, really important way to address this problem."

Robertson maintains we should be placing the focus on the real criminals — including those who traffic illegal drugs and the pharmaceutical companies themselves.

"People seeking help for drug addiction often fear arrest and judgment from their peers," he says, "and that plays a big role in why they are not able to access the services they need."

That includes safe consumption sites, a service gaining favour and a foothold in northern communities.

Robertson says he is open to "any measures in the short-term that can prevent the loss of life. If that means safe consumption sites, safe supply, expanding treatment on-demand — anything that is going to prevent overdose is something we should be looking at strongly — and with a sense of urgency."

Robertson notes it is "a thin veneer," for many between addiction and getting clean. "If the wind blows a certain way or you don't have the support system...we live in a time in which people face a lot of stress. People have a lot of untreated trauma and sometimes people fall through the cracks and find their lives in crisis. 

"The only way to help this is to put your hand out to help and to offer hope to people. We know that people can recover from even the most chronic drug addiction. We know that people can turn their lives around and can lead meaningful lives if they can get the support they need."