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Lives lost in drug-poisoning crisis remembered on Overdose Awareness Day in Nanaimo

Ceremony held at Maffeo Sutton Park on Wednesday, Aug. 31
Carol Robertson, with a memorial poster of son Gordon Robertson Clark, at a ceremony commemorating lives lost in the opioid crisis, on International Overdose Awareness Day, Aug. 31 in Nanaimo. (Karl Yu/News Bulletin)

Lives continue to be lost due to toxic drug overdose, and community members gathered at Maffeo Sutton Park to raise awareness and call for action.

The Nanaimo Community Action Team on the Overdose Crisis hosted an event on International Overdose Awareness Day, Wednesday, Aug. 31, at the Lions Pavilion.

According to last month’s B.C. Coroners Service report, 330 people died from illicit drug toxicity in the Island Health region in 2021, while 187 have died in the first half of 2022.

One of the afternoon’s speakers was Carol Robertson, whose son Gordon died not long after an intervention. The family wanted to get him in treatment in Duncan and he said he would go to Ontario and return after sorting things out. Instead, Aug. 31, 2021 was the last day of his life, his mother said.

“He went back to Thunder Bay and that was it … the morgue was full. They had to send his body to Toronto, which was like 1,000 miles away. We didn’t get autopsy reports for eight months. It was laced with awful stuff,” Robertson said. “I’ve had this year of grieving and the sad part when you’re grieving, when nobody knew your kid – he wasn’t from Nanaimo – it’s a lonely place.”

Tanis Dagert, a Nanaimo Community Action Team facilitator who has been working in the area for the past four years, said the crisis must be tackled by people working together.

“My work has been to try to bring awareness to the overdose crisis and what we’re now calling the ‘lethal drug poisoning crisis,’ particularly in Nanaimo and to bring all the people together to try to address the crisis…” she said. “We have a lot of collaborations and really good people and we’ve really tried to build it on a foundation of relationship-building. We have to stop this crisis.”

The provincial death toll from toxic drugs has past the 10,000 mark since a public health emergency was declared in April 2016, the coroners’ report said.

Sheila Malcolmson, Nanaimo MLA and B.C. minister of mental health and addictions, said raising awareness is important, because as the coroner reported, the majority of toxic drug poisoning victims die alone in their homes.

“It’s not hitting people who are living homeless as much as it’s hitting people who don’t have that community of peers around them,” she said. “We know it is shame and stigma … that makes people hide their addiction and use drugs alone. One of the most important things we can do, as community members, is to assert that addiction challenges are health-care problems, no different from stepping forward for help with a cancer diagnosis.”

Robertson also spoke of the need people working together to try to prevent more drug-poisoning deaths.

“You have to change the pronouns. I always had my kids, three girls and a boy. Now I say my girls. It’s very painful,” she said. “I’ve noticed in Nanaimo, there seems to be a really strong ‘us and them’ mentality and I think until we become ‘we’ and bond together in this fight, it’s just going to continue.”

RELATED: First half of 2022 sees record 1,095 toxic drug deaths in B.C.

RELATED: Purple chairs appearing on Overdose Awareness Day

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Karl Yu

About the Author: Karl Yu

After interning at Vancouver Metro free daily newspaper, I joined Black Press in 2010.
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