This is the second feature in a three-part series diving into aspects of the opioid pandemic, the overdose crisis, whatever you wish to call it. It is a public health crisis which became exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to Canada’s Public Health database, there was a 95 percent increase in apparent opioid toxicity deaths from April 2020 to March 2021, with a total of 7,224 deaths, compared to 3,711 deaths from April 2019 to March 2020. Since then, deaths have remained high.
These statistics were published in March 2022 and only went as far as September 2021, but by that point, 5,368 apparent opioid toxicity deaths had occurred. This is approximately 20 deaths per day. For a similar timeframe in the years before the pandemic, there were between 7 in 2016 and 12 in 2018 deaths per day.
Several factors may have contributed to a worsening of the overdose crisis throughout the pandemic, including the increasingly toxic drug supply, increased feelings of isolation, stress and anxiety, and changes in the availability or accessibility of services for people who use drugs.
Raymond King, who some may know as Wendego, an Indigenous rapper challenging Canadian systemic oppression and mental health stigmas, remembers seeing drug use at a young age.
“My uncle did drugs,” he said. “So, I knew about it before I knew about creating music or anything like that. It was there before being an artist was there.”
Growing up in Sauble Beach, he started partying as a teen. It’s not uncommon for young people, King admitted, but he pointed out that most small towns don’t have a new crew of people rotating in looking for a party all summer long. In other towns, even if there is a large party scene, there are familiar faces who have your back.
“In Sauble Beach, you are drinking every night, but it is with new people,” he said. “It’s a tourist town, and you bounce around and meet new people every day.”
King said names weren’t necessary because people would drink or do drugs with him and then quickly pass from his life.
“It was easy to get into a cycle of using drugs and drinking all the time here because it was just a giant party for a long time,” said King. “It’s easy to find a party when there is a party on every corner; let’s just go to the next cottage.”
In his Wendego merchandise, King added a #FuckFentanyl shirt that he hoped to give the proceeds to local non-profits doing harm reduction work. He couldn’t find one that would accept the money because the message was too crass.
“Normally, when you see t-shirts, you don’t see fuck on it plastered across the front of it,” he said. “Fentanyl is not pretty, what is happening is not pretty, the word fuck is not pretty.”
The idea emerged when he saw fuck cancer posts spreading around social media.
“Everybody we know knows somebody who has been touched by cancer,” said King. “Well, we’re in a time now where everybody we know has been touched by addiction. So now, fuck Fentanyl. Many of my friends have died from a little speck of white dust, so I wanted to use something that is not pretty. I want to be straightforward and vulgar.”
It was an ill-fated campaign.
“At the end of it all, I stopped charging for those shirts and started giving them away for free,” he said. “I want this message out.”
Drugs have changed since his carefree party days, and contamination from potent synthetic opioids is common.
“You don’t even know what you are getting any more,” said King. “I know a lot of guys that are addicted to coke still and have been doing blow for years and years and years, and they died this past year because they got some bad shit. It’s like you think you would know after doing it for years, and you should be able to tell your drugs apart, but it’s dropping people left, right and centre.”
When Woodstein Media asked King if he could estimate the number of friends and acquaintances he has lost to overdoses, he said he couldn’t even guess now.
“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s an epidemic. It is awful, and I have friends that are still alive that are basically dead. The damage it did. Their mentality is just gone. You try to talk to one of your friends, and they are trying to talk to you about taking over the world.”
After spending a large portion of his youth and young adult years in prison, King has been sober from heroin since 2011.
“When I was in treatment, they taught me a lot of ways to deal with my emotions and grief because a lot of that led to my using,” he said. “I was sexually abused, and that led to drugs. It wasn’t connected like, I got abused, so I have to go do drugs, but once I started doing the drugs, I forgot about that abuse and it kind of takes over.”
He addresses those emotions and grief with Wendego.
“That’s one of the ways the treatment taught me to utilize instead of getting upset and going to drink to feel better or to use drugs to feel better,” said King. “There are many ways you can deal with it. There are positive ways to deal with your triggers. Mine is writing.”
After he said he saw a lot of drug use in the hip-hop scene, Woodstein Media asked him if that was a challenge to his sobriety.
“I’m really, really happy that I am almost 11 years clean because I wouldn’t be able to do what I am doing right now if I was in my first or second year,” said King. “There is so much temptation – people saying, you want to go out to the car and do a rail? I say I’ll go out to the car and smoke a bong. I’m cool with smoking weed.”
He goes to shows, and the artists disappear as soon as their set is done.
“I was always taught in the metal community, especially the punk community as well, the etiquette of – these guys just watched me play, so why don’t I stay and watch them play,” said King. “That’s not the etiquette with hip-hop. It’s like they get up (on stage) and then go to do their drugs in the back.”
Wendego is interested in collaborations with other artists, so he doesn’t carry a bias if an artist is using drugs.
“I’m not going to be like, oh, I’m not going to work with that guy,” he said. “If I like your music, I like your music regardless of what you are doing, but I will tell you straight up I’m not going to do what you are doing.”
King is not trying to tell people what to do, but by telling his story, he hopes people can see what worked for him and what didn’t.
“I hope people see what I have and see that it makes me happy,” he said. “I’m enjoying what I am doing, and I’m not outback stressing over something minuscule related to drugs or a girl, whatever.”
King believes when you have integrity, it creates charisma.
“Integrity attracts, and the people that want that sobriety are going to hear that message in it,” he said. “The people that don’t will not hear that message in anything. It doesn’t matter what you throw at them.”
He said he isn’t a 12-step person, but King did the 12-step programs.
“I don’t agree with some of it,” he said. “The first step is to admit you are powerless against alcohol and its effects on your life, and I don’t believe I am powerless. As soon as we give away our power, we are powerless; you know what I mean? I have the power to make my choices and decisions.”
He agrees with the twelfth step of sharing your sobriety with other people.
“What I try to do is try to stay connected with my friends even if they are still in addictions,” said King. “I try to stay connected and offer that out – hey, you can always come and chill with me anytime you want.”
His voice betrayed his emotions when he began to think about close people he had lost to drugs. His cousin Clarence was shot on the Neyaashiinigmiing 27 reserve a few years ago.
“It was over drugs,” said King.
King’s friend Russ recently passed away.
“He was a drum and bass artist,” he said. “He came home from Toronto, and I don’t think he was even home two months, and he just passed away.”
King estimates he probably hears about at least one death a month on the reserve, if not close to it.
“It’s hard to think about and talk about,” he said. “I had just talked to Russ. I had just posted online about a Wendego show, and he replied, why don’t we get some drum and bass artists up there? And I was like, let’s do a show, bro, I’m down. I love drum and bass. Then he died.”
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