The Current

'You don't expect to bury your child': The parents left behind in Thunder Bay's opioid crisis

Three Thunder Bay, Ont., parents who lost a child to an opioid overdose tell The Current what they want the authorities to do about the city's crisis.

Thunder Bay, Ont., had the highest per-capita rate of fatal opioid overdoses in the province

Ken Bailey's son Mark died at 48 years old of an overdose from cocaine laced with fentanyl. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

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Ken Bailey doesn't see his son's death as an accident. For him, Mark's overdose — from cocaine laced with fentanyl — was a murder. 

"It's like me having a beer here and you put arsenic in it and I drink it and die. Is that an accident? That's murder as far as I'm concerned," he told The Current's host Matt Galloway.

Bailey is one of three parents who spoke to The Current about losing a child to an opioid overdose in Thunder Bay, Ont., which had the highest per-capita rate of fatal opioid overdoses in the province, according to a 2019 Ontario Public Health report analyzing 2017-2018 data. For every 100,000 people, there were nearly 23 deaths, the report found.

As a child, Mark was exceptionally bright, Bailey says.

When he bought his son a Commodore 64 computer in the early '80s, "within two weeks he [was] coding — self-taught."

Four photos of Mark Bailey are displayed in his father Ken's home. At the centre is an urn with Mark's ashes. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

But as a teenager, the drug use started. First, marijuana, then hard drugs: cocaine, heroin, and other opioids.

Mark tried methadone — a synthetic opiate used to treat opioid addiction — to get clean, Bailey says, but it didn't work. 

Eventually, he was arrested for an armed robbery of a pharmacy. When he got out of jail, he continued to spiral.

In August 2018, Mark was found dead in a motel in the middle of Thunder Bay, with enough fentanyl in his system "to knock down a six-ton elephant," Bailey says. He was 48 years old.

Mark Bailey died of a drug overdose from cocaine laced with fentanyl in August 2018. He was 48 years old. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

"You don't expect to bury your child. There's just no description."

Since Mark's death, Bailey wants dealers who deliberately lace drugs with fentanyl to be charged with murder.

A growing number of police forces across Canada are laying manslaughter charges against people who allegedly supplied fentanyl to people who overdosed and died, including the Ontario Provincial Police.

"That will be something that we'll start to consider as well," Sylvie Hauth, Thunder Bay's chief of police, told The Current.

Thunder Bay Police Chief Sylvie Hauth says the force is trying to keep people alive by looking at the opioid crisis from a broader perspective versus solely criminal. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

But Dan Irwin, head of the Thunder Bay Police Service intelligence unit, says finding evidence to lay manslaughter charges in these cases is complex.

"It's the whole building a case … it's finding out where [the drug] came from — and they took it voluntarily, too," he said. "There's more research and things that need to be looked into for all these cases."

Drug policy experts have also argued that manslaughter charges are an ineffective tool to stop overdose deaths, and could even make the crisis worse by deterring some people addicted to drugs from seeking help, as people dealing drugs may be using them too. 

Hauth says Thunder Bay police are also trying to keep people alive by looking at the opioid crisis from a broader perspective "whether it be a mental health crisis, whether it be substance abuse, homelessness."

Paramedic Cody Marson speaks to a patient in the back of an ambulance. Marson and her team regularly pick up people who have overdosed on opioids. She says these days they are always prepared with naloxone kits, a medication that can counter the effect of an opioid overdose. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

She says all Thunder Bay officers must try and address basic, immediate needs for people, such as a safe place to sleep for the night or medical services, and are required to carry the overdose-reversing drug naloxone.

"What we do is really ensuring that people are OK and helping them at the time of their need," she said.

Still, Bailey regularly writes letters to officials, from the Thunder Bay police chief to Ontario's attorney general, and keeps a file with all the responses he's received. 

"All it is, is 'We want to extend our condolences,'" he said. 

"I don't want condolences. I want you to get off your ass and do something — and they're not."

'That's poison, that's murder'

Photos of Tyler Rojik at his old apartment, where his father Keith Rojik now lives. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

Like Bailey, Keith Rojik felt his son's overdose death wasn't taken seriously enough by police.

Tyler Rojik had just turned 27 when he died last June with 10 times the lethal amount of carfentanil — a powerful veterinary tranquilizer meant for use on hippos and elephants — in his system. 

"Ten times the lethal amount — that's poison, that's murder," said Rojik.

Rojik and his ex-wife Tara Libiak describe their son as a kind, "very outgoing, very brave," athletic young man with lots of friends.

Keith Rojik's son Tyler died of an opioid overdose at 27 years old. He had 10 times the lethal amount of carfentanil, a large animal tranquilizer, in his system. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

"Everyone loved him," Rojik said.

But in 2017, Libiak got word from one of Tyler's friends that his drinking was getting out of control. Then she noticed the track marks on her son's arms. 

After she confronted him, Tyler confessed that he was using a variety of drugs, including cocaine and heroin. Eventually, she and Rojik convinced him to go to rehab.

"From then on, we became pretty much best friends," she said. "He would tell me stuff, even though I would yell at him or scold him."

Tara Libiak, Tyler's mother, urged her son to get help. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

Despite his initial reluctance, Tyler thrived in rehab, his parents say. 

"He found himself a sponsor, went to all these clean places with them and luncheons and dinners," Libiak said. "It worked, and he tried his hardest."

About six months later, she says, he fell off the wagon. But he soon checked himself back into treatment. 

"The second time he wanted it. He did it all himself," she said.

But it wasn't long after that that Tyler had to be rushed to hospital, after a relapse caused him to have a heart attack.

"His heart was so enlarged ... and it was from his prior injecting," she said.

Tyler as a child (right in the top photo) with his father Keith, and Tyler's younger brother, Keith Jr. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

At that moment, Libiak gave her son a warning. "I said, 'Tyler, the next time you do drugs, you know, you're going to die.' And he says, 'I know.'" 

Six weeks later, on his birthday weekend, he did.

"We don't know who he was with or if he was doing it with someone [at his apartment], but his door was wide open. And we still don't know who called 911," Libiak said. 

Rojik said the two of them have chosen to speak publicly about their son's death in hopes that it may encourage others to seek help before it's too late.

"There's just too many people that we're losing here," he said. "And it's ridiculous."

Written by Allie Jaynes. Produced by Lara O'Brien, Joana Dragichi and Documentary Editor Joan Webber.