As It Happens

Grand chief who lost son to opioid crisis calls on B.C. to call a public inquiry

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip is the president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, which has called the crisis a "state of emergency."

The Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs says opioid-related deaths have caused 'a state of emergency'

Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs Grand Chief Stewart Phillip and his late son Kenny Phillip. (Joan Phillip)

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When Stewart Phillip joined his fellow First Nations chiefs in calling on the B.C. government to launch a public inquiry into the opioid crisis, he did it for his son.

Kenny Phillip died of a carfentanil overdose in Grand Prairie, Alta., on Aug.7, 2018, the day after his 42nd birthday.

More than 9,000 Canadians have died from overdoses in the last two years, according to the latest data available from the federal government. More than 1,489 died in B.C. alone last year, according to the B.C. Coroners Service.

And it's even worse for Indigenous communities. First Nations people are five times more likely to have an overdose, and three times more likely to die from one, according to the First Nations Health Authority.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip is the president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, which has called the crisis a "state of emergency."

Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

How did the opioid crisis contribute to the death of your son Kenny?

By virtue of the fact that those drugs are so readily available on the street and throughout the entire province, anyone that is a victim of substance abuse or an addiction is at great risk to encounter fentanyl and carfentanil.

How often do you think that somebody in your community or communities in B.C. is getting the call that you got about a child or a loved one?

Without question, it's a crisis.

And a short while ago, we had recognition and acknowledgement of the opioid crisis in our community in Penticton, and everybody was encouraged to hang purple ribbons on their driveway or on their home in the event that they had lost a loved one to a drug overdose.

When you drove through our community, there was purple ribbons almost on every house. It was a very graphic representation of how pervasive this opioid crisis is.

Ben Mark, with his son Daniel, attended a vigil in Vancouver on Sunday, Feb. 5, 2017 for people affected by opioid overdoses. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Yes, it's a crisis for everyone and lots of people across Canada are faced with this. But why is it so much more intense on First Nations communities?

I think poverty and economic marginalization and the legacy of the residential school experience, the Sixties Scoop, all contribute to a situation where many, many of our people have coping mechanisms to deal with the trauma, the intergenerational trauma, from all of those experiences.

Declaring something a state emergency is not just words, is it? It calls for something. What do you want that to be a call for?

The governments of the day have adopted a minimalist approach in that they're simply attempting to cope with harm-reduction strategies.

But what we need is greater investment in treatment centres, the full spectrum of the continuum of care, which means that there has to be far more detox centres, more treatment centres — treatment centres for women, treatment centres for young people. And we need aftercare.

Our offices are 312 Maine. And, you know, during our work week, five days a week, the emergency vehicles are going by. It's just non-stop, 24/7.

The frontline medical personnel are out on the streets saving lives and, too often, they save the same life over and over again, the same individual, until at some point there's nobody there and the individual passes.

If there was a response as you're describing it, if that were in place and that was a priority, is it possible it could have prevented the death of your own son?

All families and parents that have lost a loved one, you know, they're left with that question.

My son did attend six or seven treatment centres. They're wonderful people. They're very committed to their work.

There needs to be a major investment in this crisis, and yet governments are still going down the rabbit holes of LNG and SNC-Lavalin and, you know, the large scale resource development projects. You know, the Trudeau government bought a dead pipeline for $4.5 billion.

That money could have been spent in the addictions field, in treatment centres and so on and so forth. It's a matter of governments not establishing this crisis as a priority.

And you've asked for a public inquiry. What are the questions you want an answer to?

I think that a public inquiry will provide an opportunity for all of these questions to be brought forward and we'll have the ability to bring forward expertise and it'll get the proper hearing that it deserves.

Tom Rodgers, the opioid conference director, he said that Big Pharma, you know, holds a huge responsibility for this because of all the prescriptions that they put out there. Then, we also know that organized crime is laundering billions of dollars, possibly also through illegal drug money and real estate. ... When you're up against all of that — when there's these very, very large organizations are contributing to it — what can you possibly do?

I think that's why it's imperative that we do have the inquiry.

The revelations of how there is a direct link between astronomical real estate values as a consequence of illegal money laundering in the province of British Columbia, in Vancouver and Toronto and other places, will be brought to light.

I think we need to connect the dots. And I think that governments have been — you know, in the inner circles — been aware of these relationships.

But they were benefiting from real estate taxes. It was an absolute enormous windfall for the former B.C. Liberal government.

So they just looked the other way.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Sarah Jackson.


  • An earlier version of this story misquoted Stewart Phillip as saying "the Trudeau government bought a damn pipeline for $4.5 billion." In fact, he said "dead pipeline."
    Mar 14, 2019 11:25 AM ET