The VICE News production Steel Town Down travels to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, where the demise of a once thriving steel industry has given birth to widespread despair, limited economic opportunity, and a raging opioid epidemic.
Victor Gareau still works at the steel plant. He’s one of the lucky few. The industry once employed over 13,000 locals, but modernization and cost cutting measures hung most of that work force out to dry. His 19-year old son Josh is an addict. He continues to use even though he’s personally known a number of people just like him who have perished under the weight of their addictions.
Josh is not an anomaly. Over 4000 overdose deaths were reported in Canada last year alone, and the opioid crisis has hit this small town especially hard. Poverty is a major contributing factor, but limited treatment resources have also done much to exacerbate the epidemic. The local hospital employs only one addiction specialist, and it’s not unusual for her to treat eight overdose cases in a single night.
The most popular drugs like Fentanyl are synthetic. Users rarely know precisely what they’re injecting into their bodies, and the mystery concoction too often proves fatal.
An epidemic like this one does much to shape the character of a community and vice versa. You can feel it in the empty shops, the shuttered housing and the desperation carved into the faces of its residents.
“This town is all about drugs,” admits one addict. The opioid crisis has even taken a front seat in the lives of those who don’t abuse drugs. The filmmakers speak to concerned parents who struggle to keep their children alive, medical professionals who experience a steady stream of senseless drug-related deaths, the rehabilitation counselors who work to inspire those who wish to escape from the claws of their addiction, and a paramedic whose frequent overdose calls have become routine.
Sault Ste. Marie is indicative of many towns all across North America and beyond. Steel Town Down captures the trauma felt on all sides of the issue, and accurately portrays addiction as a devastating disease that requires patience, empathy, and adequate resources to overcome.