A face to the numbers: Meet some of the Torontonians whose lives have been touched by drug overdoses

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Dozens of people gathered outside the Health Minister's office on Thursday to mark International Overdose Awareness Day

Akia Munga will never know his friend Corey Blackfinger's real last name, but he does know that if society could have seen past his exterior as a drug-user on the streets of Toronto, it just might have saved him.

On Thursday evening, Munga was among about a dozen people who gathered in front of Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins' office to mark International Overdose Awareness Day and to read the names of those whose lives have been claimed by opioid overdoses.

"Opiates, I feel like to Corey, meant he didn't have to care," Munga told CBC Toronto. "He had a rough background in terms of family, he lived on the street for such a long time."

  • Mayor John Tory hints unsanctioned overdose prevention site could remain open
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That, in part, was why he shed his last name, Munga explained.

'He wanted to be more than he appeared'

"[When you're] homeless, sometimes you just ditch your last name if you don't like it or you don't like who you were," he said. "If people, the community, just a random person looked at him with love instead of disdain, I feel like that would have changed the way he felt about himself."

Instead, Blackfinger died of a drug overdose, one of so many of Munga's friends who have been lost the same way. 

But among the photos and candles that transformed the entrance of Hoskins' office into a makeshift memorial on Thursday night, Blackfinger's face was noticeably absent.  

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About a dozen people gathered in front of the provincial Health minister's office Thursday to remember their loved ones who have died from overdose. (CBC)

It's hard enough to put a number on how many in the using community have died, Munga said, let alone have someone care enough to take a picture. 

"He just needed love and just a little bit of security," Munga said of his friend. "Like 'I can use but people won't think I'm a bad person, I can live on the street and people won't think I'm dangerous. He wanted to be more than he appeared."

Event comes at poignant moment in the city

It was a familiar refrain among those who turned out Thursday. 

International Overdose Awareness Day isn't new. The global event sprang up in 2001, but this year, it comes at an especially poignant moment in Toronto.

The city is facing a spate of overdose deaths that prompted at least one group of harm reduction workers to take matters into their own hands and open an unsanctioned supervised injection site in the middle of Moss Park.  

"We need access to these things so that we can get to a place where we don't need them anymore." - Olympia Trypis

Earlier this week, Mayor John Tory visited that site, which he'd previously said he wanted to see "dismantled" when the the city's official sites open later this fall.

Having seen someone inject themselves with drugs for the first time that evening, however, the mayor hinted that the site, which now operates under an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, may well have a future — albeit perhaps in a location with running water.

Safe injection sites like that, said Olympia Trypis, just might have saved her friend Brooklyn Rae McNeil. 

McNeil was found dead in an alleyway from a drug overdose last year, just two weeks before Toronto's board of health voted unanimously to approve safe injection sites.

  • Safe injection advocate dies of overdose before Toronto approves 3 sites

"She was a very fierce spirit. She was a daredevil. She just loved everybody and thought everybody was worthy of affection," said Trypis, adding that her friend was also a fierce advocate of the sites. 

But McNeil struggled with mental health issues and homelessness, and her addiction led her to set aside formal education.

'She's just a memory'

"Nobody likes panhandling," Trypis said. "Nobody likes trading sexual services for drugs, nobody likes to do that, nobody wants to do that. We need access to these things so that we can get to a place where we don't need them anymore."

Donna May, who lost her daughter, Jac, in 2012, knows the importance of that access all too well.

"My daughter Jac was bright, beautiful, witty beyond belief, she could have the room in stitches just by walking through the door," she said Thursday. 

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Donna May lost her daughter, Jac, in 2012 to an overdose. She says the stigma around drug use needs to end. (CBC)

Opiates were her way of coping with debilitating social anxiety, May said. 

No one knows exactly what cocktail of drugs killed Jac, but her mother says she died of an overdose under a doctor's care in hospital. 

Better education amongst emergency room staff, less stigma around drug use, people responding immediately to an overdose, all could have possibly helped to save her daughter, says May, who now runs an organization called mumsDU, which stands for Moms United and Mandated to Saving the Lives of Drug Users.

May said her daughter was also the mother to three girls. 

"Sadly they're left behind for others to raise now. She's just a memory."

Hoskins is set to meet with leaders of the harm reduction community next week.

Meanwhile, for those like Munga, the memories of their friends and loved ones serve as a painful reminder.

"If society had been able to see past what he put in his body, I think he would have had a chance," he said. 

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    Article A face to the numbers: Meet some of the Torontonians whose lives have been touched by drug overdoses compiled by www.cbc.ca

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