Windsor church addresses toxic drug crisis

June 28, 2024 | News | Volume 28 Issue 10
Madalene Arias |
Windsor, Ontario
People from Windsor Mennonite Fellowship join a rally in support of safe consumption sites at their MPP’s office. Supplied Photo

Rielly McLaren says the grief caused by toxic drug deaths feels staggering and palpable in his community. McLaren, who pastors Windsor Mennonite Fellowship, also serves as chaplain to men transitioning into new communities after completing prison sentences. The toxic drug crisis has hit both those communities.


McLaren was one of five clergy from Windsor, Timmins, Sudbury and Barrie, Ontario, who wrote a May 10 open letter to the government of Ontario urging funding of the safe consumption sites currently awaiting funding in their cities. Applications for funding were submitted 15 to 32 months ago. The letter calls for urgent action in the face of crisis.

Rielly McLaren
Rielly McLaren, Photo: Sarah Kivell

“We counsel the grieving, lead the funerals and guide the prayer services amid deaths from toxic drugs,” the clergy members write. “We’ve come to know this crisis affects the housed and unhoused, the rural and the urban, the young and the old. We are all touched by it. As people of faith, we know we are at our best when we focus on loving and supporting the most vulnerable among us. It’s clear to us that people who use drugs are vulnerable during this toxic drug crisis and that harm reduction is love.”


The federal government reports 42,494 opioid toxicity–related deaths between 2016 and 2023. In 2023, approximately 22 Canadians died every day from toxic opioids. The main culprit is fentanyl, an extremely potent synthetic opioid that illicit drug manufacturers use to make their drugs more addictive.


Last October, after a shooting incident near a community health centre in Toronto, the Ontario government initiated a safety review process of all safe consumption sites. With the review underway, review of funding applications for new sites was suspended.


This affected SafePoint, Windsor’s first and only safe consumption site. SafePoint, which Windsor Mennonite is connected to in various ways, opened in April 2023, relying on funds from the municipality and community. The provincial review meant no provincial funds were provided. The centre was forced to close at the end of December due to lack of funds.


“They’re not operating in good faith,” says McLaren of the province. “They just pulled the plug based on something that happened in Toronto. We’re not Toronto.” “There’s no sign of the safety review being completed,” says McLaren. He says the whole process has lacked transparency. The open letter says that since October, the Ministry of Health has “not offered timelines, answers or details of this review.”


At Windsor Mennonite Fellowship (WMF), the toxic drug crisis is not only a question of advocacy. When SafePoint announced its closure, people from the church joined the community in a vigil outside of the closed facility.


On a Sunday in June, McLaren invited members of the local health unit to attend the church for a service dedicated to learning about the opioid crisis. A medical professional even provided them with training on the use of Naloxone—a nasal spray that can reverse an opioid overdose and provide a window of time to seek support from a medical practitioner. Windsor’s local health unit recently reported that 68 percent of overdose deaths in the city occurred in private residences, challenging the public’s conflation of homelessness with opioid addiction.


McLaren says that whether an overdose happens within or outside the walls of the church, the folks at WMF, which is equipped with a Naloxone kit, are prepared.


At least five families at WMF have lost loved ones to opioid overdoses. Rick, who prefers not to use his last name or his daughter’s name for privacy reasons, is one such person. He lost his 35-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. She worked as a nurse in Detroit while living in Windsor.


Speaking by phone from his home two years to the day since his daughter’s death, Rick says his daughter became involved with people who pushed illicit drugs and ended up developing an addiction to opioids.


She was a fun-loving woman who loved her younger sisters very much, and they adored her. “She had a laugh that would just permeate a room,” says Rick.


In the years leading up to her death, she became more withdrawn from family. They saw less of her at gatherings.


Eventually cocaine laced with fentanyl killed her.


McLaren came to be with them at their home when they learned of their daughter’s death and later devoted a service to the grieving couple. He provided each of them with prayer shawls and invited them to sit crossed-legged on the floor as the entire congregation prayed over them. 


“It was such a moving thing,” Rick says with obvious emotion in his voice.


“I have found Windsor Mennonite is wonderfully positive, inclusive, supportive. There’s no judgment,” he says.


He also remembers WMF being well represented at the vigil when SafePoint closed. People brought roses for those who had died from overdose, and flowers to give to friends and families grieving their loved ones.


At the time of publication, 129 faith leaders from various Christian denominations in Ontario have added their names to the open letter. McLaren hopes more will join.


“To me, that is the work of the church— to help in a time of a public health emergency, to create a very specific community of care,” says McLaren.


“People who use drugs are beloved by God,” the letter reads.

People from Windsor Mennonite Fellowship join a rally in support of safe consumption sites at their MPP’s office. Supplied Photo

Rielly McLaren, Photo: Sarah Kivell

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