By Thandiwe Konguavi
Staff Writer

Rev. Jim Holland is on the frontlines of the deadly battle against opioid abuse.

“Society itself has got to wake up and smell the roses, because our people are dying,” said Holland, pastor of Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples in Edmonton’s inner city. ”Last week I had three (burials) in one week.”

Opioids are a growing problem in Alberta.

In the first six weeks of this year, 51 individuals died from an apparent drug overdose death related to fentanyl, compared to 28 who died in the same period in 2016, according to Alberta Health.

Since 2014, 717 individuals have died of opioid overdoses, including 349 deaths last year.

The effects of opioids are devastating, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said in a statement last week. They cited over-prescription, inter-generational trauma, and a breakdown in family life as some of the causes of opioid addictions.

Advocates of medically supervised injection sites say they offer a temporary solution for drug addicts by limiting overdose deaths and the spread of certain diseases.

In Edmonton, Boyle McCauley Health Centre, Boyle Street Community Services, and the George Spady Centre are slated to offer injection sites within the year. A fourth will be located at Royal Alexandra Hospital for inpatients only.

“If we could get a centre where they could do their drugs and they’re safe and they’re not falling dead in the streets, that’s my contentment,” said Holland, noting addicts use drugs and leave their paraphernalia around his church.

“We’re not doing anything about it because we don’t want to get dirty, we don’t want to touch it, but it’s all around us.”

However, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) believes safe injection sites don’t go far enough. “They alone do not address the deeper problem of addiction, nor do they bode well for public safety,” the CCCB said.

Drug use is a way of coping with pain, in an unhealthy way, says Archbishop Emeritus Sylvain Lavoie, spiritual director of the Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, which provides addiction recovery programs.

“One of the definitions of addiction is an attempt to avoid legitimate suffering. People try to avoid the pain of life.”

Talking about addiction is the first step toward recovery, adds Lucie Leduc, executive director of the Star of the North Retreat Centre.

“People in the pews aren’t hearing that, but it’s an issue, and unless there’s a lot of family care, and a lot of love, there’s no way people can get through it. If you don’t have the care, where’s the heart of Jesus in that?”

Read the full CCCB statement here: