1,200 people have died from overdoses in Saskatchewan in 3 years. Who were they?
Families say everyone was someone's child, and each was more than a statistic
More than 1,200 people have died from suspected or confirmed drug overdoses in Saskatchewan since the beginning of 2020. A CBC Saskatchewan project shares the faces and names of many of those we lost during those three years, taking the conversation beyond statistics and stereotypes.
Those who grieve them want others to know each person was someone's child and special in their own way.
As one mother told CBC News, "He'll always be my baby."
If you want to share the story of your loved one lost to an overdose since January 2020, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Adama 'Adam' Cissé, 39 years old
At six feet seven inches tall, Adam Cissé was a gentle giant.
Never quick to anger, he delighted his family — including his three sons — with his jokes and silly nicknames.
His mom remembers him as a "rumble tumble boy" who could blow holes in the knees of his new pants within minutes.
Adam had a wicked slap shot that he used in his junior hockey career. He eventually worked on the oil rigs and ran his own construction company.
He took drugs on and off since he was a teenager. In October 2021, a neighbour found Adam unconscious on his front lawn. He was pronounced dead from a fentanyl overdose at a Saskatoon hospital.
Avery Bird, 26 years old
Avery Bird had a special place in his Auntie Kandice's heart.
She took him in when he was little and raised him as one of her own. His parents both died from drug overdoses — his mom when he was 11, his dad when he was 17. As Avery grew older, he would often send handwritten cards and flowers to his aunt's workplace to express his appreciation.
He worked hard at everything he did: school, sports and jobs.
He won three gold medals in track and field at the North American Indigenous Games when he was 14. The next year, he got a part-time cleaning job at an office tower in downtown Regina.
In his twenties, he started drinking alcohol, then taking drugs, and his life unravelled. In November 2020, Avery rented a cheap hotel room in Regina to party with friends. He overdosed on fentanyl and was found in the bathtub.
Cass Wardell, 24 years old
Cass Wardell was charismatic and kind. When he was about three years old, he learned the phrase "helping hands" from his mother and took it very seriously. He liked to do things for friends and strangers: shovel their snow, boost a battery or buy their coffee.
"If he was in a lineup at Superstore and someone was short money, he'd pay the difference," said his brother, Don Wardell.
Cass was deeply in love with his fiancée and proud of his son, Elijah. He spent hours cuddling his son on the couch and taking him on long drives.
Cass struggled with anxiety and depression, exacerbated by his son's fragile health, and sought help from a psychiatrist. When prescriptions ran out, he turned to street drugs. He overdosed after buying Xanax, a benzodiazepine, laced with fentanyl on the streets.
His mother found him dead in her Saskatoon home on Mother's Day in May 2021.
Clinton Hotomanie Jr., 33 years old
Clinton Hotomanie Jr.'s mom doesn't have any childhood pictures of him. She lost them all in a house fire.
But she treasures photos of him and his daughter, whom he adored.
Laureen Pelletier-Wesaquate says her son, who was called "Junior," was a thoughtful little boy who always looked out for his little sister. He would hold her hand, fix her hair and help her ride a tricycle. He could also be mischievous. He liked to tie his siblings' shoelaces together so they'd stumble or fall.
He was curious about the world. Pelletier-Wesaquate says he'd constantly ask questions like, "How was that made? Why is the sky blue? Why is the grass green?"
He died of a fentanyl overdose in Regina on Feb. 11, 2021.
Cory Cardinal, 38 years old
Cory Cardinal — known as Cardinalis — was a poet, an artist and an activist.
A member of Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation, his troubled path through foster homes, a street gang and incarceration inspired him to become an outspoken advocate for those living on the streets and inside Saskatchewan's correctional facilities. He founded Inmates 4 Humane Conditions.
As a drug user, he was passionate about the need for supervised consumption sites and other harm reduction measures.
Cory died of a drug overdose on June 9, 2021, on the streets of Saskatoon, where he was living after his release from jail.
Damon Grant, 49 years old
Damon Grant was good with his hands. He could build anything, fix anything and taught his kids life lessons, like how to fillet a fish or change the oil in a vehicle.
He was always moving — playing baseball, golfing, fishing, camping — so when the carpenter and nurse's aide injured his back at work while transferring a patient at a care home, he relied on painkillers to keep him going. Then the doctor cut him off and he turned to street drugs.
Damon wrote poetry about his addiction, including one titled "That Goddamn Pill."
I knew it was wrong, shoulda left it alone
It swallowed me whole, and found a new home
If only I knew, the sorrow it'd bring
I can't get away. I see death coming.
He died at his Weyburn, Sask., home on Jan. 13, 2021, with a cocktail of drugs, including fentanyl, in his system.
Emily Bryce, 26 years old
Emily Bryce was a clever bookworm who loved math and science.
She was enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program at her high school and and took all Advanced Placement classes. She travelled Europe on a school trip. She always championed the underdog and earned her black belt in karate.
Her mom, Degen Stevenson, says Emily enjoyed all the privileges of a middle class family — an education, a car, vacations and new experiences — while also grasping the importance of earning her own way. She worked at restaurants, on a berry farm and in real estate show homes.
Emily became addicted to drugs in university — her mom doesn't know how — and began a cycle of rehab and relapses. She lived on the streets of Regina, in and out of shelters, as she struggled with her addiction.
She died alone in an alley on Dec. 8, 2020, at the age of 26 years.
Garnet Eashappie, 47 years old
Garnet Eashappie was always blasting rock music from the '80s and '90s.
Whether he was doing yard work, entertaining friends and family, or repairing cars (which he loved), there was always a soundtrack.
His daughters, Velma and Tylo, understood that he had unresolved trauma from his childhood and from his time in a residential school. They appreciated that he was still a caring, loving person and "great dad," despite his addiction.
He didn't finish high school, so he was particularly proud to see both of his daughters graduate.
He died of a fentanyl overdose in Regina on Jan. 5, 2021.
James McKnight, 56 years old
James McKnight loved hot fudge sundaes from Milky Way in Regina.
His daughter, Ramona, who always had strawberry, says trips for ice cream were one of their favourite outings. They also liked to walk through the mall and smell cologne and perfume samplers. He gave her special nicknames, including Kiddo, Bonehead and Monakins. In return, she called him Daddykins.
The Cree man faced a lot of trauma in his life, and spent time behind bars, yet proved himself as a strong, loving father, she said.
Ramona says her dad always told her that her "only job was school" and that he'd take care of everything else. Now a health-care worker with her own home, Ramona credits her father.
He died from a fentanyl overdose in a Regina rooming house on July 15, 2020.
Jesse Irvine, 25 years old
Jesse Irvine had a creative soul.
He was a graffiti artist who wrote rap songs and designed album covers for his friends. His mom read one of his raps at his funeral:
I stole from my parents, and ripped people off
I lost all my friends cause I was too far lost
I needed the dope, no matter what the cost
It's pretty ironic, how the tables turn
Once I was a hustler, now I'm looking for someone to burn
This is called karma, so I guess you live and learn
Laurie Irvine says her son had a big personality — like Will Smith in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air — and loved being a big brother. He fell in with a bad crowd in his early teens and got caught up in the money and thrill of dealing drugs. He checked himself into short-term treatment several times, but couldn't break free from destructive relationships and habits.
He died of an overdose in Saskatoon on July 10, 2020. He was found by a dumpster with a COVID-19 mask on his face.
Josephine Mavis Isaac, 54 years old
Josephine Mavis Isaac spent hours on the phone with her daughters and friends, talking and singing.
Her daughter, Carissa, says they could talk on the phone five times in a day. And, even now, nearly three years after Mavis died, her daughter still thinks "I should call Mom" when she gets in her vehicle. Mavis would often sing along to songs during those phone conversations.
Her family says she could brighten any room and make anyone feel welcome.
A lifelong alcohol addiction escalated to an opioid addiction after Mavis broke her arm, and she eventually became an intravenous drug user. She died from a fentanyl overdose in Melville, Sask., on June 20, 2020, at the age of 54.
Julian Hazen-Babchuk, 21 years old
As a child, Julian Hazen-Babchuk picked flowers for his mother on walks in the park or to the grocery store. And yes, sometimes he picked those flowers from people's flower beds. But he loved to put a smile on her face.
He was a good listener with a goofy sense of humour.
Julian earned a second-degree brown belt in karate and won first place in several martial arts competitions.
In high school, he began counselling and medication for mental health issues, including bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety, and started taking street drugs after graduation. He died of an overdose at a friend's house in Saskatoon on Aug. 22, 2021.
Justin Genaille, 31 years old
Justin Genaille was never happier than when he was surrounded by family.
He loved to attend family gatherings and would hang out late, playing cards and laughing until the wee hours of the morning. He was funny and known for his "smart-ass comments."
He was a proud father and a man of faith. Even when he seemed lost in life, he never lost his connection to his God. He loved taking his two children to church on Sundays, or just sitting with them and reading the Bible.
"I remember Daddy being really fun when he played with me, and he always made me laugh," his six-year-old son said.
"I will always remember my daddy for the two special dolls he bought me," his eight-year-old daughter said.
Justin died of a fentanyl overdose on Oct. 23, 2021.
Landon Francis, 33 years old
Landon Francis was always full of energy and questions.
He was one of five brothers. Their mother would buy them all new shoes at the same time and then line the boys up for a race around the block to see who had the "fastest shoes." One day, Landon's oldest brothers let him win the race. That night, his mom checked on him in bed and found him sleeping in his "fast shoes."
When he was eight years old, he was hit by a van and had a metal plate surgically implanted in his leg. Over the years, he suffered from chronic pain. In his twenties, he struggled with a drug addiction and lived on the streets.
He moved back home with his mom about eight months before he died. He liked to barbecue for his family — especially on Roughrider game days — clean the house and eat ice cream.
He died of a fentanyl overdose in his parent's basement in Regina on Feb. 11, 2022.
Matthew Baraniuk, 20 years old
Matthew Baraniuk was a "firecracker" who kept his parents on their toes from Day 1. He started walking at six months, running at nine months and kept pushing the limits.
"He didn't have any fear of anything," his mom, Shari, said. He liked moving fast on a motorcycle, snowmobile, snowboard or trick bike. But he slowed down for gentle moments with friends, family and animals.
A gifted athlete, he became a football star in high school. He played for the U of S Huskie football team in his first year of university. But, although outwardly funny and confident, he struggled internally with mental health issues and shame.
He began self-medicating with pills and died of an overdose at his parents home on May 20, 2020.
Marilyn Marceline Gordon, 30 years old
Marilyn was a mom even when she was a little girl.
She cared for her mother, who suffered from lupus, arthritis and alcoholism. Marilyn helped her mom get out of bed, bathe, eat and take medication.
Named after Marilyn Monroe by her father, she loved playing with hair and fashion. The mother of four sought help several times over her decade-long drug addiction.
She was in a family therapy program until a month before Christmas 2020. Her father said she was sober and happy when she returned home to Mukowekwan First Nation for holiday gatherings. She died of an overdose on Jan. 3, 2021, after going out with friends and ingesting fentanyl-laced cannabis.
Mitchell Sveinbjornson, 29 years old
Mitchell Sveinbjornson was always in trouble when he was a little boy, and his mom loves to laugh about it. The family called him "zero-to-60" because he never did anything half-way, including loving people.
He didn't like school, but his Grade 7 teacher enticed Mitchell to study hard with the promise of guitar lessons, and Mitchell played guitar until he died. His football coach in Esterhazy taught Mitchell discipline and hard work — both of which he used in job at a potash mine.
He was loud, loving and liked to party. He was a recreational drug user who was mindful of drug testing at work. On Aug. 22, 2020, he did cocaine that was laced with fentanyl with friends in Churchbridge, Sask., and never woke up.
Nikkia Sugar, 15 years old
Nikkia Sugar was a sweet girl who loved simple pleasures, like baking, drawing and a walk around Wascana Park in Regina. She liked going swimming and listening to music.
But she struggled to find a sense of belonging. The girl's family had been wracked by generations of addiction.
Nikkia spent time in a group home, moved into her grandparents home, then ran away. Her grandmother, Laureen Wesaquate-Pelletier, reported her missing to police. When she received a phone call from police, she hoped Nikkia had been found safe. Instead, police told her Nikkia had died from a fentanyl overdose in a Regina home.
She died two days before her 16th birthday.
Randall Fehr, 30 years old
Randy, or "Bonesy" as he was called by many, was the kind of guy people called on for help.
He could never sit still, so he was always happy to roll up his sleeves to help a friend move, redo someone's roof or fix a car. He gave up his couch to anyone who needed a place to stay. He loved his two small dogs, Chewy and Cleo.
When Randy was in his late teens, he was excited to become a father. However, his premature twins died shortly after birth and he had trouble coping.
He was found dead in a hotel room on Dec. 29, 2022, after overdosing on a combination of drugs that included fentanyl. After his death, Swift Current RCMP issued a warning about overdoses involving substances that did not look like regular fentanyl and may not have been sold as fentanyl, but contained the drug.
Shane Flahr, 40 years old
Shane Flahr gave the best bear hugs.
The Weyburn, Sask., businessman was known for his thundering, infectious laugh that seemed to fill a room with joy. He cracked jokes with strangers, from waitresses to grocery clerks.
A dedicated father, he loved a good Nerf war with his sons.
Everything began to fall apart for him when he became addicted to painkillers, first prescribed for a nagging shoulder injury, and then turned to street drugs to get his fix after the doctor cut him off.
He died of an overdose at home in Weyburn on Jan. 14, 2021.
Shayne Turner, 31 years old
Shayne Turner liked to dress his little sister up in hockey equipment and take shots on her.
"He made me tough," said Ashley Turner.
He sometimes picked on her, but he never let anyone else do the same. She knew he had her back, and being his little sister made her feel safe and protected.
Shayne "wore his heart on his sleeve" and loved the family tradition of loading up on snacks and then settling into the couch for a movie night. It's something he carried on with his own two children.
Shayne and a friend began experimenting with opioids when he was about 13, after accessing the friend's parents pill supply at their home. Through the years, he went through rehab and relapsed several times. His sister says he was always willing to "do the work" to go through treatment.
Shayne died of a fentanyl overdose in Regina on Nov. 8, 2021, hours after being discharged from Regina General Hospital, where records show he asked seven times for access to detox.
Travis Tumach, 29 years old
Travis Tumach's mother says he was a hugger.
"He was hilarious. He was an entertainer, a natural performer," his mom, Sabrina Tyrell, said.
Travis always made sure people around him were happy and well-fed. He aspired to be a drug counsellor and to help others, if he could get control of his addiction.
Born in Saskatchewan, he moved to Nashville, Tenn., with his mom when he was 10 years old. He became a singer-songwriter.
When he ran into trouble with the law, he moved back to Regina. He performed his music in nightclubs, but his troubles with drugs — and drug dealers — persisted. He died of an overdose in Zehner, Sask., on July 15, 2020.
Vernon Belanger, 35 years old
Vernon Belanger had a big smile, a cheeky sense of humour and could charm almost anyone.
But he was also a protector.
He grew up with a single mother and saw himself as "the man of the house." He looked out for his mom, his siblings, his extended family and his eight children. After he served time in jail, he used an employment and recruitment service agency to find jobs so that he could earn an income and support his family.
Vernon died from an overdose in a van parked in an alley in Regina on Jan. 21, 2021.
Victoria Gibson, 37 years old
Victoria Gibson had a lot of energy as a little girl. She loved to dance, skate and talk.
"She was a handful," said her mom, Anne Jacobson.
Victoria was always cheerful and funny. She loved the colour yellow and sunrises.
"She was a sparkle in any room she entered," her mom said.
Victoria loved becoming a mother to three children and shared some happy times with them.
Her drug addiction began when she was a teenager. Over the years, she detoxed on several occasions, but often slipped back into drugs while awaiting treatment. She lost custody of her children and saw them a couple hours a month in a public place, if her mother arranged it.
Victoria was homeless for three years before she died alone in a rooming house in Regina on Feb. 14, 2020.
If you are struggling with substance use or having a mental health crisis, help is available.
For an emergency, call 911.
Call HealthLine 811 for 24-hour health and mental health and addictions services. It is staffed by registered nurses, psychiatric nurses and social workers.
Contact your mental health clinic.
Call Counselling Connect Saskatchewan for free access to rapid access counselling sessions.
Call an emergency crisis hotline.
Call Kids Help Phone for professional counselling, information and referrals. Phone 1-800-668-6868, text CONNECT to 686868 or chat online. It's confidential, free and available 24/7.