Pembroke – Renfrew County has joined the long list of rural communities caught in the middle of an Opioid drug crisis that has become so severe that the county has a higher percentage of Opioid-related deaths than anywhere else in the province of Ontario.   

This past March, the Renfrew County and District Heath Unit released a report containing a statistical report of drug-related deaths, Emergency Room visits and harm-reduction strategies in Renfrew County District (RCD) and the numbers are frightening.  

According to the report, Substance Use-Related Harms in Renfrew County and District, four people in RCD died in 2018 from Opioid toxicity. In 2023, the number grew six-fold to a staggering 25 deaths.  

It is not just Opioid toxicity claiming lives in the Ottawa Valley.

In 2018-2019, there was an average of one suspected drug poisoning death/per month in the Ottawa Valley. In 2023, the monthly average increased to three deaths per month, with a total of 39 suspect drug poisoning deaths registered by the end of December. That equates to an average of one person dead every 10 days from a suspect drug poisoning.

This year may not be much better. Preliminary data indicates there were eight suspect drug poisoning deaths in RCD in the first calendar year quarter of 2024 (January-March) and the number could exceed the 39 deaths registered in 2023.

One of the most disturbing numbers contained in the health unit’s report noted opioid toxicity deaths have occurred across RCD and the mortality rate in Pembroke is more than four times higher compared to the remainder of the county. 

Street Level Approach

For the last five years, Inspector Stefan Neufeld, Detachment Commander of the Upper Ottawa Valley (UOV) Ontario Provincial Police (OPP), has been warning residents of the big city Opioid crisis that was creeping into rural Eastern Ontario. 

As the commander of both the Pembroke and Petawawa OPP Detachments, he instituted pro-active measures so officers are prepared to deal with the arrival of a slew of illegal drugs.

Patrol units were equipped with Naloxone kits that contain medication that can quickly reverse the effects of an overdose from opioids such as heroine, morphine, fentanyl, carfentanil, and codeine.

He instituted a new outreach patrol that partners a trained mental health professional with a regular OPP officer for 911 calls that involve an individual suffering from some form of mental illness or addiction issues. The rationale behind this new approach is to allow a trained professional to deal with the underlying psychological issues instead of an officer who has no specialized training in that area. 

Perhaps most visible is the investment in the OPP Community Street Crime Unit (CSCU). The CSCU is comprised of uniform and plain clothes officers who specialize in investigating and apprehending individuals and large-scale drug networks.

CSCU members also pursue leads and arrest those involved with secondary crimes such as fraud, “smash and grab” robberies, car theft and other material crimes that are often committed by individuals who quickly sell the stolen items to purchase drugs to fuel their addiction. 

He was hopeful these measures would slow down the onslaught of the drug trade in the Ottawa Valley and provide a sense of security for residents who are unaware of the magnitude of destruction drugs can have on a small community. 

Unfortunately, one small community has been utterly devastated with the onslaught of illegal narcotics and community leaders were forced to seek outside help so they can help their own community members.

Pikwakanagan’s State of Emergency

It is not just the Upper Ottawa Valley where policing has adapted its approach to this crisis. The Killaloe OPP Detachment has shifted some of its priorities and adopted an “all-hands-on-deck” approach to assist a community that was hit especially hard by the wave of Opioid usage. 

In early December 2023, the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation declared a state of emergency as overdoses and deaths increased to the point their local resources were overwhelmed.

According to Chief Greg Sarazin, the sudden rise in the disproportionate number of overdoses, suicides and drug-related incidents became too much for the community of less than 500.

“The community become very concerned and decided that enough is enough,” he told media outlets in December. “We’re dealing with prevention issues, treatment issues, after-care issues but also enforcement issues. We have been working with the OPP to help us to sort out what’s the source of those drugs (and) how we can eliminate that source.”

One major change is the OPP has increased its presence in Pikwakanagan.

In an interview with the Leader recently, Chief Sarazin said the epidemic that ripped through the community starting last fall has gradually slowed down.

“Our community was hit hard late last year and at one point we were averaging close to one overdose a week and that is tough on any community,” he said. “The intensity of the opioid crisis comes in ebbs and flows and we felt just how intense that can be. Thanks to the help of so many individuals and organizations, the crisis has lessened, but it is not over and we are speaking out as a community and that is a big step forward.”

Chief Sarazin explained the crisis for his members extends beyond the boundaries of the First Nation. He said some Pikwakanagan members live in other cities from Ottawa to Toronto and beyond and some have also been affected by this tragic chain of events. 

He is hopeful the slow downward trend in hospital visits and substance-abuse related deaths continues, but warns complacency is not an option. 

OPP Commander Breaks Tradition

Since late last summer, the number of people who have died as a result of ingesting drugs such as methamphetamine, cocaine and others laced with fentanyl or other chemicals has risen. 

Deciding enough was enough, Insp. Neufeld decided to send a message to anyone who is considering dealing illegal drugs in Renfrew County. 

He authorized his officers to lay manslaughter charges against a local resident and an Ottawa man following their involvement in the July 23, 2023 death of 27-year-old Chance Turcotte of Pembroke. 

He said it took nine months of intensive and meticulous investigation before Donald Wesley Sullivan, 35, of Pembroke and Taylor Hein, 37, of Ottawa, were arrested on April 4 and charged with manslaughter and trafficking in a schedule I substance – fentanyl. They remain in custody at the Ottawa Carleton Detention Centre (OCDC).

It was the second time he broke tradition and announced manslaughter charges related to a drug-death in Pembroke. He explained a manslaughter charge of this nature is common in urban areas, but rare in any Eastern Ontario detachment. A previous manslaughter charge was issued in 2022 against a 55-year old Pembroke man, but it was never resolved as the accused passed away prior to his case going to court.

Multiple Drug Busts In 2024

Although empathetic to individuals whose lives unravel due to addiction, Insp. Neufeld has zero empathy when it comes to arresting drug dealers who transport large quantities of products into the area. 

Since January, members of the UOV and Renfrew OPP Community Street Crime Units (CSCU) have successfully dismantled both large scale and small drug networks.

The operations are time consuming and draw on scarce resources, but there is no denying the CSCU units have built up a strong reputation. The number of drug-related arrests since January is staggering for a rural community like Renfrew County, and in one case, a fluke 911 call resulted in the largest seizure of drugs worth more than $7 million.

January 5: A 48-year old woman and a 30-year old man, both of Renfrew, are arrested and charged with possession of cocaine for the purposes of trafficking.

January 25: Police charged 11 people with trafficking, including two teens, after a drug bust in Pembroke. They executed two search warrants at homes on William Street and seized suspected fentanyl and cocaine, along with scales, money, drug paraphernalia and cell phones.

February 20: Two Arnprior men are arrested and charged after officers seized nearly two grams of suspected cocaine and items typically associated with drug trafficking.

February 29: Eight people face a total of 54 charges after a drug bust in Pembroke in which police seized suspected fentanyl, cocaine and methamphetamine. 

March 6: A 36-year-old Pembroke man and a 30-year-old woman were each charged with possession of a Schedule 1 substance for the purpose of trafficking and the OPP seized 90 grams of suspected cocaine.

March 13: Six people were charged with offences related to dangerous drug trafficking following the execution of search warrants at two apartments. The CSCU seized over 50-grams of suspected cocaine, fentanyl, methamphetamine pills and nearly 10-grams of MDMA.

April 4: Donald Sullivan of Pembroke and Taylor Hein are arrested and charged with manslaughter for allegedly providing narcotics to a Pembroke man who later died of a Fentanyl drug overdose.

May 6: Five people were arrested after a warrant was executed on a Hunter Street residence in Pembroke. Among the charges laid were possession of a schedule I substance for the purpose of trafficking; possession of a schedule I substance and possession of proceeds of property obtained by crime under $5,000. Police also seized a quantity of drugs and cash. 

Pembroke lawyer Tim McCann, who represents the federal government on criminal matters, said one factor that stands out with the string of drug apprehensions is the high number of individuals being arrested.

“Not only have there been larger than usual drug seizure operations, but the high number of apprehensions at each location is something I have not seen on a regular basis,” Mr. McCann said. “The problem they encounter when taken into custody is the length of time it may take to resolve the issue, especially when a single operation may result in 10 or more arrests. 

“They are becoming more stationary so when the police show up, they are surprised to find so many people inside a home. Unfortunately, with so few criminal defence lawyers in the county, a defendant may have to wait up to six months before they retain a lawyer.”

Mr. McCann said the largest drug bust he has encountered took place in Laurentian Valley in 2008. He said more than 40,000 marijuana plants were seized from a farm near Pembroke and it was the largest outdoor marijuana raid in Canadian history up until that point. 

In terms of cash value for illegal drugs, a 911 call was made by an unidentified motorist travelling on Highway 17 west of Deep River resulting in what is perhaps the largest value of illegal narcotics seized by local authorities. 

The individual who placed the 911 call was concerned the driver of the vehicle was impaired. 

A short while later an OPP officer stopped the vehicle and the male driver was charged with impaired operation of a motorized vehicle. 

During a recent bail appearance, the court heard it was only after the officer conducted a search of the car in case there was any evidence of alcohol, he made the dramatic discovery.

“The officer immediately reported the discovery of suspected narcotics and a request was made for a CDSA warrant,” Mr. McCann informed the court during that appearance. 

“When police were granted authorization to search the man’s vehicle, they uncovered approximately 100 kg of crystal methamphetamine.

“To put that in perspective, his cargo had a street value of around $7 million, and that is the largest value of a Schedule I drug I have ever seen in this area,” he told the Leader.” “Schedule I drugs, substances or chemicals are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

Mr. McCann said the 57-year old New Brunswick man remains in custody and once the case is resolved, the drugs will be destroyed.

After police have formally charged an individual with a drug-related crime, the accused enters an over-burdened judicial system where court cases can take over a year to resolve. Some, at times including first-time offenders, are loaded into a cramped transport vehicle and transferred to an outdated Ottawa Carleton Detention Centre where several lockdown procedures have taken place in the last six months.

By Bruce McIntyre, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on May 30, 2024 at 11:31

This item reprinted with permission from   The Eganville Leader   Eganville, Ontario
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