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Woman whose frozen body found after release from jail died of overdose, Sask. coroner says

Kimberly Squirrel, a mother of six from the Yellow Quill First Nation whose frozen body was found in Saskatoon in January, was a victim of the city’s growing overdose crisis, according to official autopsy results.

Squirrel’s body was found on Jan. 23 in the city’s Pleasant Hill neighbourhood, just three days after she was released from Pine Grove Correctional Centre in Prince Albert, Sask.

The results of an autopsy by the Saskatchewan Coroners Service, released to CBC News by the Ministry of Corrections on Thursday evening, indicate the 34-year-old died from an overdose.

“The cause of death was confirmed as combined drug toxicity of methamphetamine, fentanyl and acetyl fentanyl,” the statement said, noting her family have been notified of the results.

Her younger sister, Angela Squirrel, said she was shocked by the news, which she received Thursday night. She said she believes if Kimberly had had access to a supervised consumption site, her life may have been saved.

“At least they could just have that option to be safe, to have somebody there, to have naloxone on hand,” she said, referring to a medication that blocks the effects of opioids.

Squirrel’s death sparked anger across the province, with many saying it was a symptom of larger issues within the correctional system, specifically at Pine Grove — the only correctional facility for adult women in the province and one that critics say can disconnect women from family and friends.

Her family said Squirrel was struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues and had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

‘A completely avoidable situation’

Court documents show that Kimberly Squirrel was charged in August 2020 with starting a fire that threatened the property of another person and a month later with weapons offences involving a knife. The arrest that led to her remand up until January was for allegedly violating curfew and not complying with court orders.

Officials with the Ministry of Corrections said there are programs in place to help inmates who have been sentenced deal with drug addiction, pointing to a five-week dedicated substance abuse treatment unit at both Pine Grove and Regina Provincial Correctional Centre. The ministry is looking to expand the program, it said.

The ministry said inmates who are released on remand are unable to enrol in such programs but have access to services and supports outlined in their conditions of release.

But Jason Mercredi, executive director of Saskatoon’s supervised consumption site at Prairie Harm Reduction, said Squirrel’s death is one of many in the city that could have been prevented, especially when her body was found just 600 metres away from the facility.

“It’s a completely avoidable situation. She should have had a safe place to go and she didn’t,” he said.

“There’s names behind these numbers that keep coming out, and it’s frustrating to have somebody pass so close to our centre when we should have been operational.”

jason mercredi
Jason Mercredi says government support for Saskatoon’s supervised consumption site would be a signal of hope amid a dark addiction crisis. Prairie Harm Reduction was refused funding for the site in the recent provincial budget. (Kendall Latimer/CBC)

Prairie Harm Reduction was refused funding for its supervised consumption site in the recent provincial budget and is now operating the site through fundraising and donations from local businesses.

Mercredi said he hopes Squirrel’s family members find peace in the coming years, adding they’re not alone in the grief of mourning someone lost to a drug overdose. He said he doesn’t know what it will take for the provincial government to take action.

“I don’t know what to do at this point, because clearly the community cares, clearly this is affecting families, clearly we can make an impact, and somebody should be here today and they are not.”

A statement from the Ministry of Health said while the supervised consumption site did not receive the funding it asked for, Prairie Harm Reduction receives funding from both the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Social Services amounting to more than $900,000 for outreach programming and health services.

The ministry also noted it’s spending $458 million for addiction and mental health services across the province, including $2.6 million specifically for harm reduction.

On budget day earlier this month, Mental Health and Addictions Minister Everett Hindley said while supervised consumption sites are one way to address the overdose crisis, they’re not the only way. He said the province needs to find a way to help communities across Saskatchewan.

“This is a provincewide discussion. It’s why we’re looking at provincewide solutions.”

Ministry promises review

Following Squirrel’s death, Corrections Minister Christine Tell announced a review into what happened before, during and after the woman was released from provincial custody.

After Squirrel was released from Pine Grove, she was escorted by correctional staff to a bus leaving Prince Albert for Saskatoon, according to the ministry.

angela squirrel
Angela Squirrel, Kimberly Squirrel’s younger sister, speaks with CBC News outside of her home on Friday. She says if her sister had access to a supervised consumption site, she may still be alive. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

Squirrel’s family have said they weren’t notified when she was released.

The ministry said it is prohibited from letting anyone know when an inmate is being released from jail due to privacy and safety concerns and that it’s up to an inmate to decide which family members are informed of their release.

Angela Squirrel, who previously said the family want to have their voice heard as part of the review, says the types of support offered to inmates who are struggling, including supervised consumption sites, need to be considered as part of the release process.

She said the site in Saskatoon, which is currently operating on limited hours, should be open 24/7.

“It would make a difference,” she said. “Especially during night hours. There is people who still have no homes, going from place to place. Half of the time, people are out and about all night.”

While some are still under investigation, the number of deaths attributed to accidental drug overdose in Saskatchewan has climbed substantially in recent years.

Between 2019 and April 6, 2021, 575 accidental deaths due to drug toxicity were recorded, for a three year average of 191, according to data from the province.

For the three previous years, the annual average was 108.

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