It's a cancer in our communities, and it's spreading as fast and viciously as cancer does.
It was only three years ago when W5 started reporting on the sudden deaths being caused by illicit fentanyl in Alberta and BC. It was mostly contained, then, to the large cities in those provinces.
Criminal gangs were manufacturing it into pills made to look like legal opioids, and kids in comfortable neighbourhoods were discovering the intense high of super-potent fentanyl, and it hooked them instantly.
All it took was for one of those pills to contain a little extra fentanyl, and their hearts stopped. Hundreds were dying that year. Last year, our teams spent 24 hours on the streets of Vancouver for an award-winning documentary revealing how first responders are overwhelmed by the crisis.
This week on W5, we explore how quickly the gangs have expanded the supply chain to reach into just about every community in Canada. And to get as close to the people on the frontline of the epidemic as possible, W5 has teamed up with editors, producers and a filmmaker from Vice Canada.
Like W5, they have been tracking the rapid spread of fentanyl and opioid abuse among younger Canadians. Our joint team spent a week in the neighbourhoods of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., one of many smaller centres coping with the opioid crisis.
Shawney Cohen has filmed several documentaries about drug abuse and culture for Vice Canada, but he says this one may have been the hardest.
"This is the one place that felt a little hopeless. There's a disconnect between generations and with so many economic needs, drug addiction has almost no profile. There's only one harm reduction officer for the whole city and five overdoses everyday," he says.
"Places the size of the Soo will never have sufficient resources. Provinces and the national government need to get more involved as they did with the AIDS crisis. These drugs are killing more people than AIDS did."
W5 cinematographer Kirk Neff found himself filming in cramped places and getting people comfortable enough with a camera around to share their thoughts and feelings.
"I was sitting in front of someone who knew they were going to die in a few months. But she's still doing it," Neff says. "They wanted someone they could trust to talk to. Someone who wouldn't tell them what to do and what not to do, Someone who wasn't judging them."
There is no reporter on this documentary, only the voices of users, families, and the first responders who are overwhelmed.
Most of the health-care professionals in the Soo openly admit they’re helpless to make a real difference. They’re counting on the addicts to find their own way out. But many de-industrializing towns like Sault Ste. Marie aren't creating the jobs to reach for.
The opioid users you’ll meet are much like those W5 started tracking when the crisis began: intelligent, caring, and often with family nearby. But addiction has its grip on them. And in places like the Soo, there’s very little help available to weaken it.