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Grieving mothers, drug users, recovering addicts share stories about B.C.’s overdose crisis in Penticton

Those affected say ‘archaic’ drug policies caused thousands of preventable deaths 5 years into overdose crisis

About 30 online participants and many speakers from Penticton gathered Wednesday, April 14 at Gyro bandshell in an emotional online vigil to remember the lives lost during B.C.’s ongoing opioid crisis and to call on the provincial government to prevent more lives being lost.

Speakers at Wednesday’s vigil included moms who have lost children to overdose, active drug users as well as those in recovery.

Wednesday marked the fifth anniversary of the day B.C. declared a public health emergency under the Public Health Act due to the significant rise in opioid-related overdose deaths. Since then over 7,000 people have died from overdose in the province.

All of the speakers shared the view that the B.C. has government hasn’t done enough during the overdose crisis. The message to government was clear: decriminalize personal possession of illicit substances and provide a safe supply and countless lives will be saved.

The drug supply has become increasingly toxic during the pandemic, leading 2020 to be the deadliest year for overdose deaths on record with 1,716 deaths.

Earlier on Wednesday, B.C.’s minister of addiction and mental health supports said the province will be officially requesting a federal exemption to decriminalize personal possession of drugs in order to combat the crisis.

READ MORE: B.C. to request federal exemption for simple drug possession

Cherith Robson, one of the vigil’s first speakers, lost her son Hayden to an accidental fentanyl overdose in July 2020.

“Since that day I’ve spent the last nine months grieving the worst day of my life and grieving my boy so much,” she said holding back tears.

Since her son’s overdose, Robson has dedicated herself to finding out what needs to be done so no more mothers experience her pain.

Hayden’s drug use, like most many others, started at a young age and was rooted in trauma. When Hayden was a teenager he witnessed his best friend stabbed to death.

“Of course, he’s a big strong man and he can’t show he’s hurting or needing help. The stigma that we have around men not being able have pain or need help needs to end,” Robson said.

Robson had no idea her son was using opiates at first. She knew he was struggling emotionally but his drug use was always kept a secret.

Hayden was able to move away from Penticton and the environment that spawned his opiate use. He would stay clean for several years. But once his relationship deteriorated he returned to Penticton and old behaviours, and by then the drug supply had become much more toxic, causing him to fatally overdose.

Robson said if more support was available to her son he would likely still be here today.

“What I know is we need a safe supply,” she said. “These are good people. My son could have had a chance, he could have gotten straight and he could have done a great job with the rest of his life if only he hadn’t been poisoned.”

Cherith Robson's son died of a fentanyl overdose in July, 2020. She's since dedicated herself to finding out what needs to be done so no more mothers experience her pain. (Screenshot)

Jill Martens, whose son died of a drug overdose in 2016, has a similar story to Robson’s.

Martens’ son Daniel died of an unintentional fentanyl overdose alone in his vehicle in Kelowna. He was 24.

In her emotional speech, Martens said her son’s death “transformed” her. “The presence of Daniel’s absence is always with me, living without Daniel is the most unnatural way for me to live out my remaining years,” she said. “I grieve for the loss of the future I’d always imagined sharing with him. Now there is an empty chair at family celebrations, no daughter-in-law, no grandchildren.”

Martens called her son’s death, as well as the deaths of over 7,000 others in B.C., a “brutal forced separation that was both senseless and preventable thanks to our archaic drug policies and laws.”

Martens stressed the need for decriminalization and a regulated safe supply as well as a societal need for a broader understanding of generational trauma and the role that a child’s developmental years have in forming addictive tendencies.

“I realize now, more than ever in this world in which we live, it is critical to hold onto our children, engage with them and learn new parenting skills to stop the unintentional cycle of passing down trauma from one generation to the next,” Martens said.

Jill Martins’ son Daniel died of an unintentional fentanyl overdose alone in his vehicle in Kelowna. He was 24. (Screenshot)

Nicola Hill was the third grieving mother to give a very emotional speech. Her son, Corey, was 34 when he passed away.

“Substance abuse does not discriminate,” she said, “This could happen to anyone at anytime,” she said. “There are no second chances in this for some people, we are not getting to the root of the problem.”

“We need help… we need to get to the root of the problem. Five years and these numbers are getting worse.

Unfortunately I’m now part of statistic. I’m enduring the pain and loss of a child and my brain has been rewired, it feels like it was smashed with a big boulder.”

Hill said she spoke for the countless other mothers and parents in her situation not only in B.C. but across North America as both Canada and America are in the grips of a devastating opioid crisis.

“This trauma is now my life but it wasn’t my choice. This is just one mom’s story. Sadly there are many more, too many,” she said through tears.

Watch Hill’s full speech below:

Among the speakers were also several people who are still currently battling addiction themselves.

One unnamed man said he started using heavily after losing his girlfriend and best friend in the same week to overdoses before Narcan was readily available to reverse opioid overdoses.

“It’s affected me in pretty much every way possible,” the man said of the overdose crisis. “I don’t even know who I am anymore.”

He continued to say public perception of drug users needs to change in order for progress to be made.

“It’s not just like ‘oh you choose to do drugs so it’s your fault,’” he said. “It’s so much more complicated than that. I’m still a person, I’m not just another face of a junkie.”

"There needs to be more help offered or easier ways to get help because this is an incredibly hard addiction to break both mentally and physically, a lot of us feel hopeless," said this unnamed man during Wednesday's vigil. (Screenshot)

Another Penticton woman interviewed who is currently living in active addiction said she has saved 64 lives by reviving them with Narcan and lost three people to overdose in her arms.

“I try to remember individual people and not group and stereotype like the rest of society,” the unnamed woman said. “You see anybody in this walk of life and they think we’re all addicts, and even I have to remind myself that we’re not addicts, we’re human beings, each and everyone one of us… I think the government has forgotten that too when they try to address this crisis.”

This woman said she has saved 64 lives using naloxone. The opioid overdose reversing drug became free and readily available to anyone in B.C. in 2016. (Screenshot)

The vigil was organized by Desiree Franz of the Penticton Overdose Prevention Group in collaboration with Moms Stop the Harm.

At the beginning of the vigil Franz shared her own path to recovery years ago and the support and privilege she had to make it happen — support and privilege that many are not as fortunate to have, she said.

“A safe supply, decriminalisation, livable wages, affordable housing and increased options for treatment and counselling and, finally, and most importantly: love and compassion from society,” Franz stressed as the key factors to ending the overdose crisis.

“Without those things I would not be here today,” she said at the beginning of nearly two-hour vigil.

“Maybe by understanding everything I needed for recovery you can understand why the war on drugs has never and will never work.

Remember that every overdose death is a policy failure.”

Watch the full vigil below:

READ MORE: Vigil for 5th anniversary of B.C. overdose crisis to be held in Penticton

READ MORE: B.C. to request federal exemption for simple drug possession

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Jesse Day

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