Last week, Free Press reporter Jeff Hamilton wrote a touching homage to Jay Macaulay, who died of a drug overdose at the age of 50 earlier this month. Macaulay was a sexual assault victim but had bravely told his story to Hamilton and others about his abuse at the hands of Graham James, his hockey coach in the late 1980s.

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Opinion

Last week, Free Press reporter Jeff Hamilton wrote a touching homage to Jay Macaulay, who died of a drug overdose at the age of 50 earlier this month. Macaulay was a sexual assault victim but had bravely told his story to Hamilton and others about his abuse at the hands of Graham James, his hockey coach in the late 1980s.

Unfortunately, drug overdoses during the pandemic are on the rise in Manitoba and across Canada. Statistics released by the office of the Chief Medical Examiner this week reveal that deaths due to an overdose are up by 87 per cent in 2020 from 2019 in this province.

That means about one person a day has died as a result of a drug overdose. Most were from the use of opioids such as fentanyl.

The inability to use exercise as a stress release, to meet with families and friends to decompress and the uncertainty caused as a result of the pandemic are all potential factors in the rising rates, but there’s certainly more going on here.

There is also a direct correlation between drug and alcohol abuse with sexual assault, particularly for men who have been sexually abused. It’s important to understand this because it allows us to understand addiction through the lens of trauma, instead of seeing it as a moral failing.

It’s estimated that up to 70 per cent of men who are addicts are also sexual assault victims. Men are also less likely to report their victimization because of fear and stigma.

In studies done about sexual violence, it’s reported that at least one in six men have been sexually abused or assaulted, whether as adults or as children, but that’s a low estimate given the low reporting rates. Many men are even reluctant to describe their experiences as sexual abuse.

The predators can be both male or female, and of any sexual orientation. Studies do suggest that most sexual abuse of boys is not perpetrated by homosexual males.

Like women, men will feel responsible for their own victimization, even if it occurred when they were children or teenagers. They will feel that they should have been able to fight off the offender — that somehow their physical strength should have been able to protect them.

They may also feel unsure about their own sexuality and uncomfortable about their body’s responses because arousal can occur even when abuse is happening. It’s still considered sexual violence.

The bravery of men like Macaulay, Sheldon Kennedy, Theoren Fleury and Todd Holt for publicly disclosing their abuse at the hands of Graham James cannot be discounted. Each of these men went public with their stories about being victimized. And all of them were open about their struggles with addiction as a direct result of their trauma.

Kennedy told an interviewer about his pattern of drug and alcohol abuse that grew out of his feelings of shame and guilt from the abuse. Fleury wrote in his memoir that the "direct result of my being abused was that I became a raging, alcoholic lunatic." Holt too also struggled with addictions.

In an interview with the Star Phoenix, Holt, Fleury’s cousin, said he kept running from himself and he drank. Finally, he reached out to Kennedy for help, entered rehab and stopped running.

Macaulay also went to Kennedy for help and, as Jeff Hamilton documents, found some respite in recovery at Fresh Start in Calgary. He made it through treatment, only to die within 24 hours after his arrival back home in Winnipeg.

James, as many of you know, was eventually charged in 1996 with sexual assault. In 1997, he pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual assault involving more than 350 encounters with underage players. He was sentenced to three and a half years.

In 2011, he once again pleaded guilty to more sexual assault charges. He was sentenced to two more years, but that was increased on appeal to five years.

In 2016, he was granted parole. As Hamilton puts it so succinctly, our court system allows "serial sexual predators like James to walk free while victims are forced to try to pick up the pieces left behind."

So when you read that 327 people died of a drug overdose last year in Manitoba, I want you to think about Macaulay, Kennedy, Fleury and Holt. And I want you to honestly understand that those drug overdose numbers represent something more than just a lack of self-control or a lack of morality.

They represent people in trauma. If you’re feeling judgment, try to replace it with compassion.

Shannon Sampert is a Winnipeg-based political scientist and the former politics and perspectives editor of the Winnipeg Free Press.

shannon@mediadiva.ca