British Columbia’s Forgotten Opioid Crisis

Five years into BC’s overdose emergency
more families are struggling than ever

Story by Sarah Berman/photos by Jackie Dives

Glenn Young was in treatment for opioid addiction when COVID-19 lockdown first hit in March 2020. His mother Pam Young says his plan at the time was to stay in treatment for a full year, and then transition into working in the recovery sector. “He wanted to do some kind of outreach and, you know, get involved in helping guys who are dealing with addiction,” she said. “He was really excited about it.”

At 32 years old Glenn was a father to four daughters and engaged to marry his partner Dana Tough. Though he had made it past 30 days sober—a minimum requirement for family visits at the Lower Mainland facility he attended—it was COVID-19 restrictions that had prevented him from seeing his kids that spring. 

Glenn struggled with the added separation, his mother said, which was weighing on him when he abruptly left treatment and relapsed last summer. Glenn Young became one of 185 people in British Columbia who died of an overdose in June 2020—the most drug overdoses the province has ever recorded in a single month.

As British Columbia tries to contain the spread of COVID-19, its failure to get a longstanding health crisis under control looms large. It has now been five years since the province first declared a public health emergency on April 14, 2016 due to the rising death toll of the opioid crisis. According to B.C.’s coroner, 6,853 people have died of drug poisoning since then.

In addition to struggles related to inadequate housing, job loss, gaps in social services, and an increasingly toxic drug supply made worse by border closures, the isolation and the mental health challenges that have arisen during the pandemic have contributed to a worrying rise in deaths in 2020 and the early months of 2021. In the past five years deaths have surged upwards every year except 2019. February 2021, the most recent data available, was the 11th consecutive month that recorded more than 100 toxic drug deaths. In total, 1,716 people died due to illicit drugs in 2020, a 74-per-cent increase in deaths since 2019.

Dana Tough seen with her daughter. Dana’s fiancé Glenn Young became one of 185 British Columbians who died of a drug overdose in June 2020—the highest number of toxic drug deaths the province has ever recorded in a single month.

The provincial government has responded to these intersecting emergencies by expanding the availability of overdose-reversing naloxone, supporting safe consumption sites across the province, and allowing some doctors and nurses to prescribe medical alternatives to street opioids. The City of Vancouver has also taken steps to apply for a federal exemption that would allow for the decriminalization of personal use for all drugs.

Drug user advocates say the “safe supply” program announced last year is only reaching a narrow segment of the province’s users so far. “The program has really stalled,” Crackdown podcast host Garth Mullins told CBC last month. “I know lots and lots of people who have been denied access to this program.” B.C.’s addictions and mental health minister said the number of people accessing safe hydromorphone rose to 3,329 last year. But that number pales in comparison to the estimated 77,000 British Columbians currently diagnosed with an opioid use disorder.

Bruce Alexander, a Simon Fraser University researcher who studies underlying causes of addiction, sees a connection between the rise in drug use disorders and our increasingly fragmented communities. He says harm reduction efforts are important and effective to a degree, but can only do so much in a society that marginalizes an underclass of drug users. Alexander advocates for additional big picture solutions that address inequality and social identity. “I think the answer really is, in a way, obvious. We have to take care of people,” he said.

In the meantime, more B.C. families have been directly impacted by the toxic drug crisis than ever before. According to an Insights West survey released in September 2020, 31 percent of British Columbians have someone in their immediate family or friends who is either struggling with addiction or has died from an overdose. For perspective, the survey found only 10 percent of respondents knew someone who had COVID-19 or had died from it.

Beginning in 2020 photographer Jackie Dives set out to spend time with families grieving the loss of loved ones like Glenn Young. These are their stories.

Marilyn and Charlie lost their father Raymond to a drug overdose in 2009.
“Right after Robert died and we got back to B.C. there was all this talk about COVID. Every channel was COVID this and COVID that. Three people had died and it was this big thing. I lost it on the couch… 175 people died [from overdoses] last month, and the whole world’s talking about three people.”
Left: Ronnie Vandale lost her son Robert to a drug overdose in July 2020. Robert was 37-years-old, loved his hometown of Powell River, and had a career in the energy sector. Ronnie and her daughter April Johnson returned to Powell River in October 2020 to celebrate Robert’s life on what would have been his 38th birthday. Right: Portraits of Robert are displayed on the beach at Powell River during the celebration of his life.
“He had a high paying, full time job. He was a functional drug user and no one but his family knew. And that’s where the stigma comes in. He always used alone because he was always scared of people finding out.”
Lizzy O Sullivan’s son Patrick died from a drug overdose in 2017. He was fully employed and financially supported his sister, taking care of her mortgage, while she attended school to retrain for a job in health care. The family shared Nemo the dog. Patrick and Nemo were close. 
“He changed his life around after he got out of prison. He wanted to quit drugs, and was seeing a drug counsellor. Then Covid came around and the lack of community and the extra toxic drugs was a terrible combination. There isn’t enough help out there for people.”
Right: Stephanie Harrington (far right) lost her brother Ian to a drug overdose in 2020. He was 39-years-old. She was 17 weeks pregnant when she found his body. Her son’s middle name is Ian. Ian was an active member at his local gym where he helped younger people train in boxing and mixed martial arts. He was seeking treatment with a drug counsellor and working on his recovery but when Covid-19 hit he felt isolated from his community and struggled with depression. Left: Ian’s parents Ann and Bernard Harrington pose for a portrait.
Wolfgang Hannah Bailey’s father Raymond died of a drug overdose in 2009. His dad loved The Velvet Underground and Wolfgang wishes they could still talk to each other about music.
“ People need support. The way that we’ve lost our kids, it’s just a double-edged sword. We’ve already gone through their addictions and tried to help them, and then they die in the end.”
Right: Darlana Treloar sits against a Powell River mural honouring families and communities harmed by the overdose crisis. Darlana lost her son Sean Treloar to an overdose in 2016. In this photo she is wearing his sweatshirt, which she wears on most days. Sean loved hiking, camping, fishing, and picking wild mushrooms. He was 27 years old. Left: Darlana Treloar’s son Sean was a Raiders fan who loved to collect ball caps. After his death from a drug overdose in 2016, Darlana got a Raiders tattoo in his memory. Darlana has since become a dedicated organizer with Moms Stop the Harm in Powell River, B.C.
Angela Poole’s partner Mike died of a drug overdose in 2018 when their son was six-years-old.
“I loved her more than anything. I have her old diaries full of to-do lists. Ten years of to-do lists. Things like get a passport, get her art together and have a show, all these things that never happened.”
Left: Rita Ewanyshyn’s sister Natalie died from a drug overdose in 2018 at 37-years-old. Natalie was an artist with a great sense of humour. Right: Natalie was well-known for painting humorous portraits like the one of Stephen Harper seen on Rita’s cellphone.
“I’d love to see him in his 30’s finding himself. Because, myself, it’s been a hard 30’s but really good. I’m trans and non binary, and [he died] before [I was] transitioning and before an autism diagnosis. I think of that person I was when he knew me and I don’t even know who that person was. I want him to see me now, and see what he would be like now.”
Millie Schulz’s youngest brother Danny died from a drug overdose when he was 25 years old.
“We always wondered. We always asked ourselves what happened to her? Why is she suffering from this pain she has to escape from? We didn’t get it… She wouldn’t tell. We didn’t know until after her death and we found the journals.”
Left: Lisa Weih and Stuart Bedard’s daughter Renée Bedard died from a drug overdose in 2020. Renée was 29-years-old. She was an artist, a hairdresser, and an emergency dispatcher. She chronicled her view of the world around her in a sketch diary.
Right: Stuart Bedard holds a page of his daughter Renée’s writing. Over four pages Renée listed her many identities, as a daughter and sister and a woman in recovery.
Mary Sumann’s fiancé David died from a drug overdose in 2018. He loved being in nature with his dog, Zeke, who Mary now takes care of. Mary got the tree of life tattoo on her back in memory of David.
“I phoned every facility from Vancouver, the Island, everywhere and they’re like, ‘No, sorry, we’re not taking anybody because of COVID and we don’t know where they’ve been…’ The waiting lists are ridiculous. There’s waiting lists without COVID. You add COVID into that and it’s just escalated 100 percent.”
Shannon Knezacky’s son Arron died from a drug overdose in June 2020. He was 28 years old and attending treatment at the time of his death. Arron worked as a welder, and then as a firefighter during B.C.’s 2019 wildfire season. He loved motorcycling and practicing his aim at a Langley gun range with his mom.
Left: Kathleen Radu lost her son Morgan to a drug overdose in 2020. Morgan was 26. He loved reading and outdoor music festivals. In this photograph Kathleen and her husband, Morgan’s step-father, embrace at the beach where the family held Morgan’s celebration of life.
Right: Mitchell and Lauren Radu wanted to be photographed in front of this mural, which was painted in their brother Morgan’s honour.
“Becoming a mother myself made me think of his loss in a whole new way. When she’s old enough I do want to tell [my daughter] the circumstances around his death. And I hope she can be a leader to her peers to spread awareness and not go down that path.”
Kayla Cohen’s younger brother Merrick died of an accidental drug overdose at 25-years-old. He was about to start his final year of law school. His family was unaware that he was using drugs at the time of his death, so it came as a complete shock to them. Kayla has two daughters who will never know their uncle, which is something that has caused her deep grief.
Liked it? Take a second to support True North Photo Journal on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!
Written By
Jackie Dives

Jackie Dives

Jackie Dives is a photojournalist based in Vancouver B.C. Her work has been featured in Macleans, The Globe and Mail, VICE, The Toronto Star among others.