Remembering Brooklyn McNeil, Toronto's Advocate for Safe Injection Sites

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Remembering Brooklyn McNeil, Toronto’s Advocate for Safe Injection Sites

In March, she encouraged the City to open safe injection sites. In June, she overdosed and died.

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Brooklyn McNeil is racing toward a ski jump. It’s the middle of a Canadian winter and the jump is big, especially for 12-year-old McNeil, who has skiied only a few times in her life. Her parents and her younger sister are elsewhere on the hill, searching for her frantically. The family planned this ski vacation in an effort to spend more time together after their mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. McNeil is squirming on the snow below the jump when they find her. Moments earlier, she had flown off it at full speed, catching air off the lip and then coming down hard.

They rush her to the hospital. Doctors rip off her clothes and although McNeil is writhing in pain with obvious signs of internal bleeding, nobody can figure out an exact diagnosis. Just as she is about to be sent home one nurse insists on a CAT scan, and its results are conclusive: McNeil lacerated her liver and kidney and the fall caused a head injury too. She is immediately prescribed morphine to assuage the pain.

That, says her mother Thia Massaro, “is when she started taking a turn for the worse.” That morphine, it turns out, would commence a long struggle with opiate addiction, one that culminated last month in a fatal overdose.

The ski accident was not unlike other far more innocuous dilemmas that young McNeil commonly found herself in the middle of—this one was just the most painful, and the aftermath the most devastating. She was an impulsive child, free-spirited and compassionate, and constantly trying to make people laugh. She ate poisonous berries once, albeit unknowingly, because she was trying to make her friend giggle. She ended up in the hospital then, too. Another time, McNeil’s sister Madison was called to the principal’s office at their high school because McNeil burned a small piece of her own skin with a lighter for a chuckle from a crowd.

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Years later, during McNeil’s battle with mental health and addiction, she made it her mission to educate and advocate for safe injection sites in Toronto. She began using drugs at 12 and was injecting opiates by 18. Thunder Bay, Ontario, where McNeil grew up, was proving to be an easy and tempting environment for drug use. “She did make mention that when they gave her morphine for her pain [from the ski accident], she really, really liked it. She knew then. From then on she said she had that euphoria,” Massaro says.

This past March, 22-year-old McNeil, more nervous and soft-spoken than her brazen nature would suggest, deputed in front of the Board of Health. She talked about how safe injection sites would benefit her health as a drug user. “Without the harm reduction philosophy, I would not have come as far as I have,” she told the board. “All accidental overdoses can be prevented by safe injection sites.”

McNeil watched her friends overdose, too—and she inspired them to get clean. “She is the one who I owe my sobriety to,” says her close friend Akia Munga. “I am now six months clean. I have never been able to do that before. I have two jobs and I volunteer, I would never have had a future if I didn’t meet her, because I never thought that people like us could have a future. Society doesn’t tell us we have a future. There is no narrative for us.”

When it comes to binary narratives of drug use (using versus sobriety), safe injection sites bridge the gap between the two opposites. They acknowledge the forgotten space in between because, as Munga says, so often the narrative goes that “either we die or we’re born again, and there’s so much more in between those two possibilities.”

In McNeil’s community and as an advocate for safe injection, she represented the real-life fluidity of coping with drug addiction. Munga remembers McNeil recently being dopesick at a harm reduction advocacy meeting. Dopesick is a term that refers to the symptoms involved with coming down from hard drugs such as heroine, and she was twitching and trembling from those symptoms at the meeting that day. Yet, she continued to convey “all these beautiful points, she was speaking with such intensity, and cracking jokes, and still talking about safer usage policies.” She left the room to vomit and came back, still present, still engaged in the meeting.

In June, McNeil died of a drug overdose in an alley in downtown Toronto, just days before the Board of Health voted in favour of approving three safe injection sites in Toronto. “The whole ironic end to all of this is that two weeks before that bill gets passed my daughter passes away from the very thing she fought for. Was this a message from her? Was she supposed to be here for only a short time?” asks Massaro. “I think she had to live and feel the part of an addict and had to feel it in order to help. She was right: if you don’t live it and feel it, you don’t know.”


CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Council approved the opening of three safe injection sites. Torontoist regrets the error.

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