hether it occurs directly or indirectly, impacting an entire community is something that only a handful of individuals get to do in their lifetime. 

For Angie Austin, her influence came from the ground up in Toronto’s shelter and harm reduction community, dynamically impacting almost every individual she came across. 

In 2017, Austin famously showcased the correct method for injecting drugs at an unsanctioned overdose prevention site [OPS] in front of then-mayor John Tory by injecting herself with fentanyl.

This unflinching display was meant to showcase the dire importance of readily available supervised injection clinics in Toronto. 

Tory, moved by the incident, then declared to the media: “We have an obligation to do whatever we can to help save those lives.”

Four years after Tory’s statements to the media, Austin’s husband ‘Slim’ died in emergency COVID-shelter care.

Sadly, Austin, died last month of an overdose. 

Angie and The City 

Austin’s death caused an entire community to stand still. Beyond the grief of her peers, Austin’s passing also functioned as a bleak reminder of the empty platitudes touted by both provincial and municipal administrations regarding drug reform.

Those who are remembering Austin have chosen to put her memory above any of the political symptoms that helped facilitate the circumstances that lead to her passing. 

“Just watching her move about the community and the name recognition she had. I mean, everyone would be greeting her if she wasn’t greeting them first. For all walks of life in this community, it became really clear that she was someone special,” said Aaron Woznica.

Aaron Woznica stands in front of a collage of photos at Angie Austin's memorial last month. Photo by Jacob Pesaruk

Woznica first met Austin while working at Street Health, an overdose prevention site in Toronto’s east end. The two developed a connection that moved far beyond just that of a caregiver and client.

By the time the off-the-books Moss Park overdose prevention site reached its formation, Woznica realized that Austin was far more than her matter-of-fact demeanour and kindness to strangers.

“She wasn’t just someone who had social capital in her community, but she was really a powerhouse politically, punching well above her weight class when it came to meeting her own needs and the needs of her community,” said Woznica. 

Austin became an ad-hoc spokesperson for Toronto’s most vulnerable and made a name for herself as a drug use advocate — but more importantly — as someone who didn’t let circumstances stand in the way of gaining the attention of those in power.

“She was the person who would be giving deputations at City Hall, she would be the one speaking to the premier, she would not only be willing to put herself on the line, but knew that she could do so in a way that honoured herself, her loved ones and Slim,” Woznica said. 

Austin spoke to any governing body that would listen, according to Woznica, and did not mince words when it came to portraying the degree of harm impacting her community, all while consistently addressing the nature of governments staying in the slow lane when it came to critical reform.

“She would put herself on a podium in front of numerous news networks and politicians and say ‘My name is Angie Dee Austin, I use drugs and your policies are killing me,’” Woznica said. 

The nature of Austin’s unwavering experiences and ability to speak truth to power is something that impacted many individuals who worked alongside her. 

“She was no bullshit, which makes a lot of sense because that’s harm reduction at its core,” said Sarah Ovens, a social worker at All Saints, a community care centre that specializes in outreach, meal programs and harm reduction management.

While Austin was championing the dignity of drug users, Ovens witnessed many of the systems Austin was involved in, and how they failed her. 

“Over the years, I really got to be alongside her as she tried to navigate the medical system and witnessing the way she was treated as someone who was using drugs was really, just really awful and shocking to me,” Ovens said. 

Ovens saw the Toronto hospital system broadside Austin while she was recovering from a surge of complications from emergency spinal rod surgery.

“The number of times that the doctors wouldn’t look at it, and refused to do anything [was appalling]. It took a student in residency with the hospital to actually get the doctors to consider corrective surgery,” Ovens said. 

Despite the loss of her husband and the perpetual indignity hurled at her by the administrations in place to protect her, Ovens said Austin always remained resolute in the face of overwhelming odds. 

Angie’s Memorial and an Unwelcome Guest 

On February 26 a public memorial was held for Austin at the John Innes Community Recreation Centre in Toronto’s east end. The event was organized by numerous members of both Toronto’s harm reduction and social working communities. 

The event was helmed by Les Harper, a social worker at the South Riverdale Community Centre, and like many who were in attendance, was often alongside Austin in the fight for change. 

Les Harper, a long time friend of Angie Austin's, spoke at her memorial in February. Photo by Jacob Pesaruk

“If you spent even seconds with Angie, you would realize they were something special, that they had power and strength in the community, all through love,” Harper said.

As those in mourning began to pour into the gymnasium in the afternoon sun, the degree of Austin’s impact became clear. 

“That room was so full of people with different backgrounds and perspectives, but we came together in unity and respect,” Harper said. 

However, one individual made an appearance from far outside of the community sphere: John Tory.

The newly ex-mayor who encountered Austin at the Moss Park OPS marked his introduction into civilian life by making an appearance at Austin’s memorial, with no media scramble or security in sight. 

Those organizing the event knew well beforehand that Tory might show up, but they weren’t looking forward to seeing the man whose policies permanently damaged almost every individual in that room.

“When word first reached me that [Tory] may be there, at first, I said I’m not going to do it. I couldn’t do it, but because of my love for Angie, I went okay, I don’t have to interact with him, I can do this,” Harper said. 

The memorial began moments after Tory’s arrival and took the shape of a sharing circle, which was accompanied by music, dancing and countless individuals sharing how Austin had changed the trajectory of their lives. 

John Tory, however, was not one of these individuals. 

For the remainder of the ceremony, those in the room waited for the ex-mayor to say anything on behalf of Austin’s passing or the drug crisis that cost her her life. 

“If he were a real human being, he would have stood up and said anything in that circle. He could have said ‘I’m sorry.’ Instead, he just sat there, stone cold. If that was the case, why come?” Harper said. 

Harper’s stoicism when conducting the memorial had only one pause when halfway through the service he acknowledged Tory’s presence. 

Harper never addressed the ex-mayor by name, opting to stare down the podium directly at Tory as he conveyed to the bereaved how those in power failed to save Austin and many others. 

“I wanted to say that to him, I wanted to tell him you did nothing, you could have prevented this,”  Harper said. 

Others in attendance weren’t satisfied with Tory’s performative indifference, and the minute a seat next to him was vacant, one individual seized an opportunity.

“I sat beside him and told him ‘you have a lot of nerve showing up here John.’ He then told me that Angie was a friend, I told him it was really nice that he specifically liked Angie, but clearly not any of her community members, not any of her peers and not other people who used drugs in the community,” said Tim Fenwick, who was in attendance. “I told him he’s got blood on his hands and that he was a literal ghoul.” 

Tim Fenwick attended Angie Austin's memorial in February. Photo by Jacob Pesaruk

Fenwick continued to confront Tory about his aggressive policy towards vulnerable Torontonians during his last gasp in public office, such as the closure of warming centers and violent evictions towards the unhoused

For Woznica, Tory’s arrival was an extreme act of negligence and an insult to Austin’s memory. 

“Angie was in the Moss Park encampments when Toronto Police, under John Tory, evicted the park. Angie and her husband then ended up in shelter care, where her husband then passed away under preventable circumstances,” Woznica said. 

When reflecting on the ex-mayor’s inaction — both in office and at the memorial — Woznica remains perplexed as to what Tory’s actual goal was. 

“It wasn’t him politicking in the way we are used to, he’d already resigned at that point,” Woznica said. “Given his privilege and lack of exposure to the degrees of suffering people there have experienced, I don’t think he could even comprehend what his impact there meant.”

While the nature of his appearance did not overshadow the memory of Austin, Woznica addressed how Tory was just one cog in the machine that took Austin’s life. 

“He could only be as harmful as he was with the support of a whole host of city councillors — and more importantly — residents of Toronto that supported what he wanted to do. He was a symptom of the problem, but not the source,” Woznica said.

Regardless of his intent and the history and complexities that came with Tory’s Tenure as mayor, as far as Woznica was concerned, his appearance at Austin’s memorial did far more harm than good. 

“Him being there in that room felt like a serial arsonist deciding to take a walk through a burn ward.” 

Angie and Slim 

The following is an interview with Angie Austin from February 2022, one year before her death. 

While Angie and her husband were in emergency shelter care at 129 Peter Street in the winter of 2021, her husband became unresponsive. When shelter staff arrived on the scene it became rapidly evident that they were not trained in any kind of emergency procedures. 

While Austin endured a panicked resuscitation attempt, she was forced to watch her husband slowly die. 

“They more or less killed my husband, they watched him die and sat there and did nothing to save him. They brought in no equipment to try and save his life, they did basic CPR, kicked me out of the room and then called me back into the room to give him mouth-to-mouth,” said Austin. 

The cause of Slims death remains undetermined and a coroner’s inquiry is underway.

While both Austin and Slim were clients of overdose prevention sites across the city, the nature of 129 Peter’s policy at the time of Slim’s death indicated that there was little in the way of emergency remedies if an overdose were to occur. Opting to instead carry a limited supply of nasal naloxone, a remedy that, according to Austin, was far too powerful for certain cases of overdose. 

“We were really looked down upon, and they were just really worried about us ‘using’ at the shelter,” said Austin. 

As a byproduct of this abstinence-based policy and a limited supply of an aggressive restorative medicine, Austin was forced to acquire her own supply of injectable naloxone from various facilities across the city. 

“They didn’t have any injectable naloxone on site, so I went and got my own. When I came back they threw them out,” said Austin. 

Austin was forced to wait 26 minutes until an ambulance arrived to take her husband to the emergency room after resuscitation protocols for her husband failed. 

He died shortly after. 

Austin’s own passing would then be just shy of two years after her husband’s death. 

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Mar 20, 2023
Local News
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