British Columbia

Missing Marni: One sister's overdose death leaves another calling for more government action

Hannah Jarvis says she wishes the government had brought the same kind of resources to bear on the opioid crisis, as it has the pandemic, both public health emergencies.

'We need more resources ... for people rather than making assumptions,' says Hannah Jarvis

Hannah Jarvis holds a picture of her sister Marni Jarvis, who died of a heroin overdose in Vancouver on May 2 at age 28. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Hannah Jarvis says she has never experienced grief like this before.

Never again will she feel the tight squeeze of one of her sister's famous long hugs or get a random text message from her suggesting a song she might love.

That's because her beloved big sister, Marni Jarvis, who would have turned 29 this June, died in May from an illicit drug overdose. She is one one of 170 people in B.C. to die of an overdose that month — the highest total recorded for a single month in provincial history. 

It's also more people than have died from COVID-19 in the province all year.

More than 5,000 British Columbians have died of an overdose since the province declared a public health emergency in 2016.

Jarvis is upset with what she says has been a less rapid response from government to the opioid health crisis compared to the mobilization of resources during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hannah Jarvis says her older sister, Marni, gave incredible hugs, loved music and the arts and believed strongly that decriminalizing drugs and creating more affordable housing would go a long way toward helping people suffering from addiction to stabilize their lives. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

"We've been naming the opioid crisis in Vancouver as a pandemic for the past four years and we have not seen that same response and that makes me so mad," said Hannah Jarvis Wednesday on The Early Edition.

She wants to see police funding reallocated to public education, harm reduction and housing projects to help people with addiction who she says self-medicate to cope with traumas and systemic inequalities like racism and poverty.

"Strong and thriving communities aren't made by stronger police presence," said Jarvis. "We need more resources and more services for people rather than making assumptions."

Jarvis also worries about how COVID-19 is exacerbating issues for people suffering from addiction and said her sister, who was living in a mental health facility when the pandemic began, felt dehumanized and alone.

Marni Jarvis wanted to become a peer support worker for other people struggling with substance use issues before she died of an overdose during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

"The thing she talked about missing most while in quarantine was her AA meetings," said Jarvis, adding her sister had a wide community of friends and was trying to maintain sobriety to become a peer support worker.

"She really showed up for people, " she said. "If her phone rang and it was somebody who she loved who was also in recovery, calling because they needed support, she would never miss those phone calls. She was always absolutely there to support other people."

When she and her mom went through Marni Jarvis's things together they found notes she had written about how she wanted people to be able to depend on her and take care of others the way she had been cared for.

'Check up on your friends': Dr. Bonnie Henry

Earlier this month, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry spoke in emotional terms about the increase in overdose deaths during this pandemic and reminded people to stay in touch, even though physically distant.

"Check up on your friends," she said during the June 11 news conference. Check up on those people, those workmates that you have that you may not be seeing as often. This is another time where we need to, while physically apart, connect with each other and support each other."

A month before Marni Jarvis died, she moved into a group facility on Vancouver's west side and her sister says she had been sober for the better part of two years.

The two women were able to spend some time together in a nearby park in the days before Jarvis's death, but there were no hugs and the sisters sat apart on separate blankets.

Objects that remind Hannah Jarvis of her late sister. Marni Jarvis's friends and family are currently working on custom quilt squares illustrated with images of things she loved that will be sewn into blankets to honour her memory. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Hannah Jarvis said her sister had always been smart about not using drugs alone and having friends check on her to make sure she did not overdose. Her sister thinks COVID-19 restrictions made it harder for her to have that support the final, fatal time.

"With COVID, people aren't doing the same harm reduction techniques they want to, because they're trying to mitigate harm in another way by not gathering," said Jarvis.

Jarvis hopes by sharing her sister's story it will reduce stigma around substance use and focus attention on addressing systemic inequalities that can drive people to self-medicate. 

"My sister experienced a lot of trauma throughout all of her life, and she was doing the best she could to to mitigate that hurt on her body and on her soul."

To hear Hannah Jarvis's memories of her sister Marni on The Early Edition, tap here.

With files from The Early Edition

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