A former N.W.T. MLA lost his son to fentanyl. He wants to talk about it

Wally Schumann lost his 27-year-old son CJ to fentanyl a little over a year ago. Now a drug poisoning crisis is overwhelming his small community in the N.W.T., and he wants to talk about it.

'He was a great kid and we surely miss him,' says Wally Schumann of his son, CJ

Three people in sunshine in front of trees.
Wally and Lori Schumann with their son, CJ. (Submitted by Wally Schumann)

Wally Schumann was shocked when he got the call. It was the Hay River RCMP, asking if he could meet them at his house. 

"Out in the driveway, the RCMP officer — you know, bless his soul — had to tell me that our son had passed away and he didn't know the details at that exact moment. He was just asked to come do this."

Schumann, a long-time resident of Hay River, N.W.T., and a former territorial cabinet minister, had spoken to his son on the phone that morning, in one of their usual early-bird chats. 

CJ, who was 27, had called from Grande Prairie, Alta., to let his dad know he'd be a day late coming home from giving a friend a ride south. 

Schumann checked his phone later: the call had come in at 5:09 a.m. CJ was found non-responsive around 8:30. He had died after taking cocaine laced with fentanyl. 

"That's how quickly this stuff happens," Schumann said. 

Smiling man in University of Victoria hoodie.
CJ Schumann spent a year at the University of Victoria. (Submitted by Wally Schumann)

Schumann had known his son and his friends smoked weed, but the use of harder drugs was news to him.

"I had no idea that he was doing this on a casual basis because I never seen it," Schumann said, "and I had a very close relationship with my son, more than most people, so …[it] totally took us by surprise when we got the call."

Since then, Schumann says he's had many conversations with people who've lost loved ones to deadly opioids, many of whom were as surprised as he was. 

Now, he wants to talk about it. 

"Fentanyl is very prominent in our society and it's killed a lot of people and it does not hold back on who it kills."

6 deaths in 1 year in a town of 3,200

CJ died a little over a year ago, in December 2021. Since then, Hay River, a community of about 3,200 people, has suddenly found itself in the middle of Canada's opioid crisis. On Jan. 24, health officials announced that the N.W.T. saw six opioid deaths last year — all of them in Hay River and most linked to crack cocaine laced with fentanyl and carfentanil. 

CJ was born in Hay River and went to school there until Grade 8, when he left to attend school in B.C. He spent a year at the University of Victoria before returning north for an apprenticeship in the parts department at the Diavik Diamond Mine. When that was over, he returned to Vancouver with "a bunch of his friends" before taking a job at Ekati, another of the N.W.T.'s diamond mines. 

Child with guitar.
CJ as a child. (Submitted by Wally Schumann)

Schumann spent time with some of those friends in Vancouver at a celebration of life they held for his son. 

There, Schumann learned that one of the rules of the house CJ had shared was: if you're going to buy any types of drugs, even marijuana — that's not from a government source — that you had to have a friend with you at all times and you had to have a naloxone kit with you.

"The day that that happened with our son, he actually broke his own rule," Schumann said, adding that "fentanyl is out there and so they were well aware of it."

Schumann recently spent Christmas with these same friends at the house, where the rule is still in effect. 

Despite the explicit acknowledgement among CJ's friends of the dangers, Schumann is quick to say that deaths from opioids are not limited to "heavy drug users."

"This stuff touches all walks of life." 

'We gotta address this'

In recent months, Schumann has spent time with other grieving families in his community. He was sad to miss a community meeting in December where people discussed the problem of addictions and a poisoned drug supply. 

Like many, he believes the community needs to come together to find solutions, and "come up with some type of plan that we can keep going forward."

"This stuff is in our small communities," he said, pointing to the recent deaths in Mayo, Yukon, and a giant drug bust of crack cocaine destined for Fort Good Hope, N.W.T. 

"As a society and a country, we gotta address this problem in a meaningful way, and I think this stuff needs to be talked about way more than we talk about it."

Tall young man in sombrero, smiling mother.
CJ with his mother in an undated family photo. (Submitted by Wally Schumann)

In the meantime, Schumann misses the early morning chats he and CJ used to have before most people were even awake. 

Though his grief is still raw, he took comfort from the recent podcast produced by CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper about loss and grief. Schumann says that's what taught him that he can still have a relationship with the son he lost. 

"He was a great kid and we surely miss him."

With files from Marc Winkler and Rachel Zelniker