British Columbia

'I have a brother who's an addict': Emotional mayor highlights personal toll of northern B.C. overdose crisis

Northern British Columbia now has the province's highest overdose death rate per capita, leading to calls for more services such as safe consumption and overdose prevention sites.

With just one prevention site, northern B.C. now has the province's highest overdose death rate per capita

Fort St. John mayor Lori Ackerman says she understands residents' concerns over allowing a safe consumption site in the community, but she says people living with addiction need to be supported. (CBC)

A B.C. mayor teared up during a council meeting Monday, revealing the impact addiction has had on her own family, as the province's overdose crisis continues to grow.

"I have a brother who's an addict," said Fort St. John Mayor Lori Ackerman before pausing to reach for a box of tissues.

Ackerman was speaking to two residents opposed to the establishment of an overdose prevention site in the city, which is emerging as a new epicentre of illicit drug deaths.

So far this year, the B.C. Coroners Service has recorded 12 overdose fatalities in the northeastern B.C. community of roughly 25,000 people, already breaking 2018's record of 10.

WATCH | Lori Ackerman's voice cracks with emotion as she discusses her brother's addiction at a council meeting:

The Mayor of Fort St. John, B.C. teared up during a city council meeting Aug. 24. While speaking to a pair of residents opposed to safe consumption and overdose prevention sites, Lori Ackerman revealed her own brother struggles with addiction, and urged a balanced approach to harm reduction. 1:55

And it's not just Fort St. John.

According to the coroners service, the Northern Health region is now leading the province in overdose deaths per capita, at a rate of 35.4 fatalities per 100,000 people. The next highest is the Fraser Health Authority where the death rate is 35.1, followed by Island Health at 33.2.

"It's shameful," said Fort St. John resident Shawn Wood, vice-president of the BC-Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors. "Especially for a resource-rich town where there's lots of money."

Wood said he patrols the streets of Fort St. John with a naloxone kit ready to reverse overdoses, and that since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, the toxicity of the drug supply has increased, further highlighting the need for an overdose prevention site in the region.

"People are scared," he said.

"This is an absolute crisis," said Prince George Mayor Lyn Hall, where 22 people have died so far this year. "It's young people, it's older folks, it's people you see every day."  

On Monday, Hall declared the city's first ever overdose awareness week in front of a crowd of advocates and family members who've lost loved ones to the crisis, including Nicole Lindsay who said her 21-year-old son died after using drugs to manage the pain of a back injury.

"He died alone in his room," she said. "That never should have happened. He should have had access to support."

Parents who have lost children to drug overdoses gather beside Mr. PG in Prince George, B.C., for the city's first ever official declaration of Overdose Awareness Week on Aug. 24, 2020. (Nicole Oud/CBC)

Lindsay is among those calling for more spaces for people to use drugs under the watchful eye of someone ready to reverse an overdose, should it occur.

The B.C. Coroners Service says while the majority of overdose deaths in B.C. occur in private residences, none have been recorded at overdose prevention or safe consumption sites.

Dr. Rakel Kling of Northern Health said the rural nature of the region is a challenge,  making it difficult to offer services to all who need it. 

"Not everyone lives right downtown or right near a [harm reduction] site," she said. "It's the added barrier of geography."

In fact, Prince George is the only city in Northern Health with an overdose prevention site, though the authority says it is examining other communities where it could establish such services, including Fort St. John. 

Shawn Wood and his dog Kain. Wood credits Kain with giving his life purpose, pushing him onto a path of advocacy for people who have survived what he characterizes as the criminalization of people who use drugs. (Shawn Wood)

The news prompted Monday's emotional council meeting, as some residents have come forward with concerns a safe consumption site would negatively impact the community.

Ackerman said while she understands the worries, she also believes in the need to provide support to people living with addiction. In the end, council voted in favour of a bylaw giving it the power to direct consumption and prevention sites to specific areas of town, similar to the rules for cannabis retailers and liquor stores. 

Wood said it was important for people like Ackerman to speak out as his organization fights to make drug use safer provincewide.

"It brings more context," he said. "This affects everybody."

The number of lives lost to illicit drug deaths continues to climb in northern B.C., and in Fort St. John there are emotional calls for consumption and prevention sites to be established. 15:27

About the Author

Andrew Kurjata

CBC Prince George | @akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is an award-winning journalist covering Northern British Columbia for CBC Radio and cbc.ca, situated in unceded Lheidli T'enneh territory in Prince George. You can email him at andrew.kurjata@cbc.ca.

With files from Nicole Oud and Tom Popyk

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