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Beyond Program Outcomes: The Lived Experience of People on Safer Supply in Northern Ontario

PI: Abigale Sprakes (Lakehead University)

Project Team: Mike B. (NorWest Community Health Centres), Ashley Rodericks-Shulwach (Lakehead University), Maris Murray (Lakehead University), Juanita Lawson (NorWest Community Health Centres), Jennifer Pasiciel (NorWest Community Health Centres)

The Northern region of Ontario is being disproportionately impacted by the current unprecedented opioid drug poisoning crisis in the province. Despite hosting only 6% of Ontario’s population, public health units across Northern Ontario have the highest per capita rates of opioid-related deaths in the province, and among the highest in Canada. Specifically, the rate of fatal opioid drug poisonings in 2021 was the highest in Thunder Bay, at 78.8 per 100,000 people, over four times the provincial average of 19.1. Moreover, the district reported a 41.7% increase in Emergency Medical Response (EMS) calls for opioid overdose between 2021 and 2022. As a response to the rising overdose rates, a Safer Supply program, funded by Health Canada’s Substance Use and Addiction Program (SUAP), was piloted in September 22, at NorWest Community Health Centres in Thunder Bay. This Safer Supply program is currently undergoing program evaluations as part of its funding agreement with Health Canada.

This project extends beyond the scope of the current evaluation of the Safer Supply program in Thunder Bay, and aims to explore the lived experiences of people who access Safer Supply programs, adding to the evidence-base for such programs across Canada. Using community-based research and engagement principles, the project will qualitatively examine how safer supply programs impact the well-being and quality of life of participants, specifically within a Northern context. Findings will be disseminated through reports, manuscripts, and presentations, as well as translated into actionable recommendations to support increased engagement with decisionmakers and key stakeholders, including community organizations and the National Safer Supply Community of Practice.