The Expositor launches unique edition of ‘Out of the Shadows’ in online format

Paul Myre, chief of paramedic services with Manitoulin-Sudbury District Services Board, says understanding the full scope of the epidemic is a complicated matter. Photo by Giovanni Capriotti

A graphic digital representation of opioid epidemic’s impact on Manitoulin Island

MANITOULIN – ‘Out of the Shadows: An in-depth look at Manitoulin’s opioid crisis’ first appeared as a special supplement to The Manitoulin Expositor’s June 23, 2021 edition. It remains relevant: Northern Ontario continues to have some of the highest rates of opioid-related deaths in the province and the number continues to grow. 

The ‘Out of the Shadows’ website was created completely in-house by The Expositor’s talented production manager and ‘web guru,’ Dave Patterson. A separate site for area supports complements the website and is referenced throughout the page.

Read the in-depth report on the opioid crisis on Manitoulin Island, researched and written by then-Expositor journalist Warren Schlote, and view Giovanni Capriotti’s telling photos at manitoulin.com/opioid-crisis/

Data from the Office of the Chief Coroner for Ontario shows that, in the Sudbury-Manitoulin district, the number of emergency department visits for confirmed opioid overdoses rose from 326 in 2019 to 520 in 2020, an increase of nearly 60 percent. Preliminary data for the first three months of 2021 reveals the number remains high, with 94 opioid-related emergency department visits during the first quarter of this year. The number of opioid-related deaths in Sudbury-Manitoulin nearly doubled from 56 in 2019 to 105 in 2020. In the first five months of 2021, there were 50 opioid-related deaths in the district.

In October, Algoma-Manitoulin MPP Michael Mantha brought forward a petition to the Ontario legislature requesting urgent action from the provincial government to save lives in the North. The petition asked that the opioid crisis in Northern Ontario be declared a public health emergency. “Per capita, the Algoma region and the Sudbury region are some of the worst areas across this province,” he told The Expositor.

The Expositor feature supplement  was initially begun as an exploration into anecdotal evidence of a high number of overdose deaths across the Island. Police reports weren’t forthcoming and a lot of the details seemed to be missing. What started out as an attempt to learn more about the state and scope of the opioid crisis in Ontario, Canada and as much as possible on Manitoulin Island became a feature project that took nearly six months to complete. For journalist Warren Schlote, and for the website, photojournalist Giovanni Capriotti, it became a labour of love.

“I didn’t know a ton about what the opioid crisis was,” Mr. Schlote said. He thought he could make his youth an excuse for not knowing. That led to the idea that other people might not have that depth of knowledge and might also benefit from a more comprehensive explanation. “I hoped it might get them to a better point of understanding.” 

Publisher (then editor-in-chief) Alicia McCutcheon gave the project her full support. 

“I never thought I’d be working on something that size,” Mr. Schlote recalled. “I knew that I’d never be able to capture the entire scope of the crisis that we’re facing and I came to peace with that fairly early into the process, which probably helped me a lot.” 

No one was going to read a 700-page report that was still being written three years from now. He realized he needed to focus on a way to increase that awareness and understanding. “There are just a lot of misunderstandings that exist,” he said. “I figured that’s the first thing we’ve got to tackle, is to get everybody on board.” 

He wanted to humanize the problem. 

“Manitoulin Island is such a beautiful and peaceful place on the surface but like anywhere else, there are demons within society and there are problems that are often seen as so big that it’s difficult to approach them.”

Mr. Schlote himself struggled with the scope and the sheer scale of the problem. It took a couple of weeks before he made introductory calls. He first contacted the Manitoulin Drug Strategy in December 2020 about the anecdotal increase in opioid overdoses but didn’t hear back until well into January. “At this point, I started realizing that people were overdosing all around,” he noted. “We needed to get something on this fast because there were lives at stake. It was a little disheartening not getting responses.”

He put out more and more calls and eventually it came together. He finished writing the story in the middle of May 2021, nearly six months after he started. He stated noticing themes as he went through his notes and continued to have conversations with people. He realized that was a way to keep it organized and a little bit easier to understand for the reader. 

“Probably the toughest part was when I picked up the phone and I had to call up a few people who had gone through this,” he revealed. “Either themselves personally or, in one case, the mother and son that I profiled. Her son didn’t make it and I am so grateful that she was willing and able to revisit that horrible chapter which was only a few months prior to when I had called her. It was not a phone call that I relished making but I knew it was important.”

While he wanted it to be a hopeful piece with a focus on stories of people who had come through the other side, to show that it was possible, he realized “if you only hear stories of people pulling through, you can’t really get the gravity of the problem. This is what’s at stake here, human lives.”

Mr. Schlote said he’s very grateful for the assistance of UCCM Anishnaabe Police Service Inspector Cori Slaughter. “She gave me a lot of her time. She was able to share and really give me the police perspective.” He also acknowledged Wikwemikong Tribal Police Service for their help. The Manitoulin detachment of the Ontario Provincial Police offered a written statement on the issue. 

“Part of this problem is a lot of people want to paint it as a First Nations problem,” said Mr. Schlote. “It all comes down to racial lines but the data very clearly says it affects all communities. First Nations are disproportionately affected, because of trauma and their long, complicated history.”

For photojournalist Giovanni Capriotti, participation in this project as a photojournalist when the online version was being prepared was a way of giving back to the community. “It’s not just the pictures,” he said. “I like to work together with people. I don’t like to just go there and take pictures, especially if you go to a small community. It’s a bilateral collaboration. We learn from each other.”

Mr. Capriotti had a very urban upbringing in Italy. He has experienced both the drug culture and the stigma, he said. “If you do opioids and live that type of life, you are always considered less than other people. I learned through the experience I had on the Island that it is a mental health condition. It is something that is affecting people and it is materializing in certain social fabrics, in certain wounds, certain things that happened in the past as in the case of Indigenous nations when we talk about intergenerational trauma.”

We need to look at the psyche of this trauma rather than the representations that we have about people who use opioids, he explained. “We need to look at the consequences of this trauma that are materializing through the opioid crisis. We’re looking at people who are working in the community to help people heal, so to me it was the perfect place to start giving back.”

The pictures are largely metaphorical, Mr. Capriotti continued. “I had the chance to photograph the people doing drugs. I didn’t want to do that. There’s no point to putting people in pictures and reiterating that stereotype. It’s not going to do anything for their community.” 

He feels this in-depth look at the issue offers people hope and a reminder that there is help and there are solutions. “We’re trying to dispel the stigma about using drugs,” he added. “You can really heal and do whatever you want in your life without using any substance.”

While working on the project, Mr. Capriotti spent a night with Wikwemikong Tribal Police Service Sergeant Scott Cooper. Sergeant Cooper is in one of the pictures; he’s the officer in the truck under the stars. Mr. Capriotti didn’t bring all his equipment that night so they spent time mainly talking. Mr. Capriotti was deeply struck by Sergeant Cooper’s concept of emotional intelligence and how to handle small communities. “It’s a testament and a manifesto on how a police officer should be. Officers in the city have so many problems dealing with crises, dealing with mental health and addiction, because they are disconnected. The policeman in Toronto is not going to know the person who is having an overdose. He barely is connected to these people. You’ve got to understand the community.”

The last part of the story is directed at things that communities and organizations have been doing around Manitoulin to improve things. “I wanted to end on that note,” Mr. Schlote explained. “I wanted to say there are people who have looked into the problem, spent time on it and thought about what we can do to change for the better rather than putting it off on somebody else. What little thing can we do? What can we do to alleviate some of that strain? It’s not a faceless monster. Maybe we can just lend an ear or check in on people who are struggling. Maybe we can donate to an organization that’s working on the issue. I wanted to make it something that would catch people’s attention, draw them in and allow them to see the bigger picture and hopefully make a decision toward a better future.”