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Display placed in Wetaskiwin for Opioid Memorial Weekend

The Opioid Poisoning Committee of the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association held an Opioid Memorial Weekend from Oct. 15 to Oct. 17 in Ponoka, Wetaskiwin and Edmonton.
The commemorative display at Wetaskiwin city hall. (Photo submitted)

The Opioid Poisoning Committee of the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association held an Opioid Memorial Weekend from Oct. 15 to Oct. 17 in Ponoka, Wetaskiwin and Edmonton.

The committee says in 2021, an average of four Albertans are dying ever day from opioid poisoning.

“We are wanting to highlight how broad the reach of this poisoning emergency is,” said Dr. Ginetta Salvalaggio, committee co-chair.

Over the public awareness weekend, over 20 volunteers placed in 76 commemorative displays around Edmonton neighbourhoods where an opioid death has occurred.

Ponoka family physician Dr. Cayla Gilbert, rural representative to the committee, also placed displays at the Ponoka and Wetaskiwin town halls, with permission.

The displays include a flowers, purple ribbon and a laminated sheet with a QR code to a link to resources for supports and information on what citizens can do to support people in their communities at risk for a drug poisoning death.

The displays will all be removed by Monday, Oct. 18.

The event started with a press conference held via Zoom on Oct. 15. The panelists were Dr. Gilbert and Dr. Salvalaggio.

Gilbert stated that Ponoka and Wetaskiwin were chosen for commemorative displays because Gilbert lives and works in Ponoka and has connections in Wetaskiwin, and is involved in the committee because opioid poisonings are happening in Ponoka.

“In my practice I see opioid poisonings, and I see opioid use disorders, and I see the stress this puts on families, individuals and communities,” said Gilbert.

“I think Ponoka and Wetaskiwin are great places to commemorate and draw attention to the opioid crisis.”

“We were quite intentional that we wanted a rural lens on the opioid poisoning crisis when we formed our committee,” said Salvalaggio.

“This is take one — we’d be very happy to highlight this across the province,” she said.

The panelists highlighted the need for access to timely data to enable timely interventions, expanding safe consumption sites and safe supply, as well as breaking down stigmas.

“All of those policy shifts depend on citizens and neighbours being aware …. please reach out to your elected officials,” said Salvalaggio.

“That’s another thing everyone can do on a neighbourhood level.”

The Alberta government recently released new data on opioid poisoning deaths up to and including July, 2021.

“It remains lagging — we have flagged in the past,” said Salvalaggio.

“I do want to point out that we are seeing ongoing escalation of opioid poisoning deaths in the Edmonton Zone.”

Salvalaggio says there was a steady, upward trend in the first half of 2021 of opioid deaths in Edmonton.

She added that every opioid poisoning death is preventable and the committee wants that acknowledged.

“This is something that we bear collective witness to.”

Data shows some neighbourhoods are being hit harder, but opioid poisoning deaths are happening in multiple towns across Alberta, she says.

The Government of Alberta ceased providing neighbourhood-specific data on opioid poisoning deaths after summer, 2020.

“I have yet to see a rationale. I guess some people have quoted privacy. We are not looking at so granular as a house address — that’s not what we’re getting after,” said Salvalaggion.

Gilbert pointed out that less specific data is available for central Alberta because of its lower population.

“So we don’t have Ponoka-specific data,” said Gilbert.

Salvalaggio says neighbourhood-specific data in Edmonton would allow them to mobilize their resources where they are needed, and says the same principle could be applied to central Alberta.

“If you think about my town, we have two or three ambulances available at any given point and if we’re having multiple opioid poisoning responses, that really impacts services, so if we can understand where these opioid poisonings are happening, then we can mobilize EMS and support services accurately,” said Gilbert.

Gilbert provided some suggests on how to support people in the community who are at risk of drug poisoning, and says the first step is to be a safe person to talk.

Some ways she suggests doing this is listening with compassion, not judgement, de-stigmatizing your language, and starting the conversation with people you care about, and in your community.

“Not everyone who uses drugs has a substance use disorder, but for those who do, help is available. It is a treatable condition,” she said.

She also recommends learning about available resources in your community and how to recognize n opioid poisoning, as well as being prepared to respond, by having a naloxone kit and learning how to use it.

“I encourage everyone — citizens, businesses, community groups — to get informed, take action, sponsor group events (and) learn what you can do as a community to respond.”

Salvalaggio says she has seen many patients at risk of drug poisoning death and non-fatal drug poisonings.

“I assure you, that the people who do not live, who do not survive, tend to be people who are most alone, tend to b people where the situation was unwitnessed. That has to end.”

Gilbert added a rural perspective on opioid use.

“This is something that is happening in everybody’s backyard and it doesn’t have to happen in isolation and stigma,” said Gilbert.

“Breaking down that stigma is a really important aspect of what we’re doing this weekend. It is a big barrier to treatment and to supports.”

Gilbert says in rural Alberta, opioid poisonings are a problem as well.

“A lot of my community members think, ‘Not here, not in Ponoka, not in Wetaskiwin, not in the farmyards around us,’ but the truth is, it is ubiquitous,” said Gilbert.

“It is everywhere and everyone is at risk of having an opioid abuse disorder,” she said, adding there is local support and resources for treatment in Ponoka and Wetaskiwin.

Gilbert says rurally, a big concern is safe supply, as when available opioids change, that can put users at greater use of poisoning, as they won’t be as familiar with that drug.

“The data certainly points in that direction,” said Salvalaggio, when asked if opioid use gone up over the pandemic in central Alberta.

However, Salvalaggio says the spike proceeded more recent COVID-19 related restrictions and the problem is multi-faceted.

It has been more difficult for anyone experiencing an emergency to get help because of the strained health care system though, she says.

“We just ended up having fewer services overall and supports for people,” said Salvalaggio.

Gilbert spoke briefly on the homeless encampment in Wetaskiwin, although she emphasized that she is not directly involved.

“For sure, Wetaskiwin has a problem going on with this encampment. there is absolutely a human toll. Individuals are suffering and that is heart-breaking. What the solution is, I don’t know. It’s a very, very complex problem, not only involving Wetaskiwin, but also the Four Nations of Maskwacis and the level of support coming from social services in Alberta Health,” said Gilbert.

“It’s a super-big problem that is beginning to be addresses on multiple levels, including by Alberta Health, the City of Wetaskiwin, and individual physicians and individual people who care deeply about these people … it’s definitely on our radar as community members.”

According to data on, there were 11 opioid poisoning deaths in the central zone in June, 2021, and 6 is July, 2021. (The data only shows one opioid-related death in Red Deer in July, 2021).

In July 2021 in the Edmonton zone, there were 57 opioid drug poisoning deaths.

The data includes unintentional acute drug poisoning deaths that have been certified by the medical examiner.

The Opioid Poisoning Committee was launched on Sept. 8, 2021, in response to the public health emergency of opioid poisonings.

For more information on the committee, visit

Emily Jaycox

About the Author: Emily Jaycox

I'm a reporter for Ponoka News and have lived in Ponoka since 2015.
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