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Where Grief Meets Rage

Thousands in BC have died of toxic drugs since 2016, including my brother. When will this nightmare end?

Stephanie Harrington 14 Feb 2022TheTyee.ca

Stephanie Harrington is a writer living in Victoria.

May will mark two years since my brother Ian died from drug poisoning. Once a welcome seasonal change, spring has become a time of mourning for my family.

This year, on the anniversary of Ian’s death, we’ll make our pilgrimage up a sand hill on the outskirts of Victoria, where Ian used to train with his gym mates. Our dad will tuck Ian’s urn under his arm. We’ll claw up the mound of old quarry sand until we reach the top of the dune, breathless. We’ll stare out at the sea Ian loved and let his ashes run through our fingers. I wonder how many trips it will take before the last remnants of his body are gone.

Something has shifted in my grief in recent days. A new companion has joined me: Rage. Last week, the BC Coroners Service released the official toll of last year’s overdose deaths — 2,224 lives lost in our province. In 2020, the year Ian died, toxic illicit drugs killed 1,765 people. That’s back-to-back record years in which toxic drugs killed nearly 4,000 people in B.C.

To date, fewer than 3,000 people in B.C. have died of COVID-19. In all, more than 8,500 British Columbians have died from drug poisoning since 2016, when officials declared a public health emergency. The numbers are unforgivable. Premier John Horgan’s government should hang their heads in shame.

But, no, these devastating facts warranted brief mention in Tuesday’s speech from the throne, in which the government — aware the province was on track for its worst-ever year of overdose deaths — failed even to refer to it as a “crisis,” never mind an emergency. Instead, officials chose to pat themselves on the back for policies that have unequivocally failed.

The government’s determination to ignore the scale of loss in this shadow epidemic has left me gobsmacked. The indifference is an affront to the thousands of citizens who have died in this health crisis. These people deserve our empathy and respect. They deserve action and care from their government. The attitude of Horgan’s government seems to say that the lives of drug users don’t matter. That their families don’t matter.

582px version of StephanieAndIanHarrington.jpg
The author with her brother Ian at a women’s rugby tournament. Photo submitted.

My brother mattered. An ironworker with an incredible work ethic, Ian was also a mixed martial arts athlete and a beloved member of his gym community. He had a big laugh, a shy smile and showed fierce loyalty. Always that person on the sidelines cheering you on, supporting you in whatever capacity needed, Ian doled out no-nonsense wisdom when you asked for it. He liked to help others but had a hard time accepting help in return. His life had value. He was — and still is — loved.

Ian wrestled with addiction. He suffered from depression for much of his 39 years of life. He took medication for it, and he also self-medicated. He sought help from a drug counsellor in the months before his death, but like many others, Ian thought he could manage his drug use.

The social restrictions imposed in the pandemic’s early days had fatal consequences for my brother, who struggled with the isolation. The drug supply became even more toxic. The shame Ian felt around his addiction meant he never told my family he’d started using frequently again. A couple of weeks before Ian died, he wrapped himself head-to-toe in garbage bags so he could give a struggling friend a germ-free, low-risk pandemic hug.

Ian died alone in his apartment in the early hours of May 3, 2020 from an accidental overdose. The coroner found cocaine and a lethal amount of fentanyl in his blood. Our family is left with questions we’ll never have answered, and an absence that we navigate every day. Ian is gone. I have my memories and love for him. And now I have my rage. Thousands of others shouldn’t be dying the same preventable death.

On Thursday, I gathered with dozens of other grieving families to protest at the legislature. What do we want? The decriminalization of illicit drugs. Low-barrier access to a safe drug supply. Better treatment options. An end to this nightmare.

We demand bold leadership. Change is possible. Other countries, such as Portugal, have enacted measures that have drastically reduced overdose deaths. The Horgan government needs to do more — now.

As a friend told me, “I’m tired of being sad.” We, the grieving, are angry. To echo the refrain of the Twisted Sister song we shouted from the steps of the legislature, we’re not going to take it anymore.  [Tyee]

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