When Donna May decided to go before the world with her daughter’s, Jacquilynne Gray, heartbreaking story, she expected a backlash from Jac’s hometown –and she got it. Convicted to share the truth in all of its’ glory and ugly, Donna offered herself to the pillory. Bringing her shared story with Jac to a public platform obligated Donna to confront her concerns about her own physical safety. Donna was also required to come to terms with the judgement she would face from those that knew Jac and from a community whose powers-that-be prefer to suppress unpleasant realities.
Jac was born and raised in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Despite Donna’s early observations and attempts to acquire help for her daughter, Jac lived with an undiagnosed personality disorder until weeks before her death at the age of 35 on August 21st, 2012. Jac died as a result of blood borne infections acquired through the use of dirty needles.
Never understanding why she felt different and why living within society’s expectations was so difficult, Jac turned to a popular escape amongst people whose mental illnesses are undiagnosed- self-medication. Experiencing bouts of depression and anxiety compelled Jac to seek relief through substance use. As a young adult she relied on her drug of choice- fentanyl.
The loneliness she felt in a world that she did not understand and that did not understand her back and a physical addiction to opioids drove Jac into the arms of a subculture that appreciated her inability to feel remorse, setting up Jac for a troubled life of dealing drugs, prostitution and violence.
In the last months of her life, Jac reunited with Donna and in those days Jac taught her mom about what it was like to live in addiction. It was Jac’s wish of Donna that she would share these lessons with the world and make a living commitment to reduce the stigma associated with and restore dignity to people who experience mental illness and addiction.
“I would give anything to complete that for her, you can have no shame when you face up to it. That is the truth. It gives you power to not only be honest with everyone else but also yourself,” remarked Donna from her Toronto home.
Jac would be proud of her mom today.
Since sharing their story on August 3rd, 2014 on the Northern Hoot, Donna has formed Moms United and Mandated to Save the Lives of Drug Users (mumDU). The group has collaborated on harm reduction initiatives with the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, the HIV AIDS Legal Network and the Canadian Harm Reduction Network. Through these joint efforts myriad letters and petitions have been developed and Donna has shared her story from a local to a national audience appearing before Senate and the House of Commons.
In 2014 and 2015 Donna led both ruFED Up rallies on Parliament Hill in Ottawa and before the Ontario Legislature in Toronto, respectively. Both events garnered nationwide attention and served to enlighten the Canadian government about practical and scientifically sound evidence supporting the need for Canadian Drug Policy reform.
This spring Donna was invited to participate on a Parliamentary round table on the opiate crisis in Canada that included policy makers and harm reduction advocates. The experience based evidence presented at the round table informed Minister of Health, Jane Philpott’s speech before the United Nations. Donna attended the event and had an opportunity to speak to delegates about her own story and of the need to introduce evidence based strategies to support people who misuse drugs.
Since beginning her advocacy journey four years ago Donna, along with other advocacy groups and political figures, have made three firm asks of the Federal government.
- Universal accessibility to the life-saving drug Naloxone. Naloxone blocks the effects of opioids, especially in overdose. Today, anyone in Canada who uses opioid or is at risk of using opioids or is a family member or friend of someone at risk to overdose through opioid use can request Naloxone at their local pharmacy. A prescription is not required and the drug is available at no cost. Training on the administration of the drug will be delivered by the pharmacist.
- Supervised Injection Sites Canada-wide. Supervised consumption sites such as Insite in Vancouver B. C., host health professionals on location that can provide life-saving intervention in overdose situations and detox and rehabilitation facilities are located in the same building. Efforts to strike down Bill C-2, ushered in during former Minister of Health’s, Rona Ambrose, regime are in full force. The Bill enforces onerous regulations for communities that want to establish safe-injection sites requiring consultation with community members, public health officials, local police forces and provincial and territorial health ministers. The Liberal government has not repealed Bill C-2 –yet. Current Minister of Health, Jane Philpott, has encouraged her party to repeal and has stated that her Ministry is willing to work collaboratively with communities that have expressed an interest in establishing supervised consumption sites.
- Good Samaritan Law. Introduced as a private member bill by Ron McKinnon, if passed, Bill C-224 known as the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act, would amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to exempt legal charges for possession against a person seeking emergency medical or law enforcement assistance for themselves or another person following overdose on a controlled substance.
A Globe and Mail article reports in B.C and Alberta fatal overdose linked to fentanyl soared from 42 in 2012 to 418 in 2015. A 2015 report by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health states that between 2011-2014 Ontario has seen 2,471 opioid-related overdose deaths. The report also states: oxycodone overdose deaths decreased by 30% while overall opioid fatalities increased by 24%; and in a 2012 survey 410,000 Canadians reported abusing prescription drugs like opioid pain relievers.
Canada has become the second largest consumer of prescription opioids, second only to the United States, and with a 203% increase in usage between 2000 and 2010.
According to a publication by the Health Officers Council of British Columbia back in 2007, there were 47,000 deaths yearly in Canada and many thousands more injuries and disabilities, at a cost of $40 billion to taxpayers year after year.
What of those numbers today?
During question period Tuesday September 27th, the Ontario government admitted that despite the rising number of deaths in Ontario due to fentanyl and opioid overdoses there isn’t any real-time reporting. France Gélinas, Ontario NDP health critic, demanded that the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care must commit to obtaining opioid overdose data in the province in real time, with clear and accurate information on how big the problem is, so that the government will be in a position to develop the policies and programs that are needed to make an impact in the right populations. Final figures for overdose deaths in 2015 won’t be available until 2017.
Negotiations that will make mumsDU the Canadian arm as an international advocacy group working to bring evidence for harm reduction around substance use to the United Nations will soon be finalized. The agreement will position mumsDU to work internationally to address overdose issues. Donna advised that a formal announcement is anticipated over the next few days.
Donna has also been invited to sit as a citizen member with the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network. As well, she will be making a speech about the overdose epidemic in Canada from the perspective of a family member at the Ministry of Health Summit in November.
Donna has also spent the past four years writing a book about her shared story with her daughter. The book is completed and currently in negotiation with publishers. Those who have followed Jac’s story will recall that she was connected to Wesley Hallam who died a horrific death at the hands of three Sault Ste. Marie men in 2011. This summer the case against these men was brought to a roaring halt when the Crown accepted a plea deal on the gruesome matter.
“I was waiting for the outcome of the Hallam situation because there are things mentioned in the book that relate to that directly,” remarked Donna. Donna elaborated that she is aware that many people may be dreading the release of the book adding, “I expect I’ll get threats and be looking over my shoulder.”
A release date for the book will be announced in the near future.
Donna’s advocacy work has been remarkable and she will tell you that Jac inspires her every step. Reflecting on the challenges attracting a local interest from professional groups in the Sault Donna is mystified but not surprised. Even getting Jac’s story out for the first time through the local media was a major hurdle.
“There is so much stigma, shame and blame but beyond that there is a connection to the criminal element. Everybody is scared. Who wants to face what’s going on in the Sault?” Donna leaves the question hanging.
The past four years have solidified Donna’s role as an advocate for drug users –for better or for worse. The role does not come without personal sacrifices but for Donna that’s just the way it’s going to be.
“There is no other life. There truly isn’t. I don’t know of anything else anymore.”
To watch the Minister of Health’s speech before the UN click here.