A new community support group is starting up in Fort St John for families affected by the opioid crisis.
The group has been meeting informally Wednesday evenings at Centennial Park over the last month, and plans to move to the Treaty 8 building starting next week.
Heather Boswell says she’s dedicating the effort to her late son, Chris Baker, who died from an accidental overdose at his home in June 2018.
“I didn’t find there was anything in town, there wasn’t a lot available for people like me,” says Boswell. “It’s not that we have a special hold on grief, it’s different. It’s really different. I have good days and bad days but it helps to talk, it really helps to talk.”
According to the BC Coroners Service, there were a record 29 fatal overdoses in northeast B.C. in 2020, most of them in the Fort St. John and North Peace area. Sixteen people in the northeast had died from overdose by the end of May this year.
Much of the spike has been attributed to potent opioid fentanyl, a drug up to 80 times more potent than morphine, and hundreds of times more potent than heroin. It wasn't seen in Fort St. John until 2013 when the Coroners Service attributed two deaths to the drug.
Fentanyl was what killed Chris Baker in 2018.
He was a millwright who worked in Hinton and would often come back home to Fort St. John. One Tuesday he called up his mom to let her know he’d be home the next day.
“I didn’t hear anything from him Wednesday but I thought he’s probably sleeping, he’s probably tired. On Thursday I hadn’t heard anything so I’m texting him and phoning him, nothing,” Boswell recalls.
“Then Friday I was really concerned so I went to his apartment and I got the police involved. They went in and they asked if he had any tattoos to identify him, and I told them, and they said they were sorry.”
Baker was 35, and Boswell knew her son was a social drug user — “which doesn’t mean anything. Whether they are addicts or not, they’re still people,” Boswell says. She would learn he had used cocaine with a friend the day he died, and the coroner explained there had been a “hotspot” of fentanyl that had been mixed in.
“They put it in a blender and they put the fentanyl in there but the blender doesn’t actually mix all the fentanyl properly so there’s a little couple molecules together and that killed him,” she says. “He had gotten out of bed and he fell down. He died when he got out of bed.”
Like most families caught in the overdose crisis, Boswell learned a lot in the immediate aftermath and was left asking: what do I do? She doesn’t blame her son or his friend, but she does blame those responsible for bringing fentanyl into B.C. and cutting it into the illicit drug supply.
“It’s the big guys you have to go after. They’re cutting it because they want people addicted so they’ll continuously buy it," she says. “Blame is tough. If you blame people then you’re not happy, you can’t move on, you can’t do anything in life."
“I learned a lot but I want to help other people because talking about it makes it a little bit better,” she says. “He was my only child.”
Northeast B.C. Illicit Drug Toxicity Deaths by year
2021 - 16
2020 - 29
2019 - 18
2018 - 24
2017 - 23
2016 - 18
2015 - 4
2014 - 8
2013 - 5
2012 - 6
2011 - 7
2010 - 3
Across B.C. there were 160 overdose deaths in May, bringing the total number of deaths for the year to 851.
Men have accounted for 80% of overdose deaths in B.C. this year, with the majority of deaths, 85%, happening in private residences or other social and supportive housing.
Since her son died, Boswell said she has connected with many families who have lost loved ones to a drug overdose. Fort St. John and the northeast have among the highest overdose death rates in B.C, and overcoming stigma remains an issue for many, she says.
“When I say my son died of an overdose of fentanyl, people automatically assume he’s a drug addict,” Boswell says. “Drug addicts are people and it really makes me angry. People have said to me that was his choice. Nobody chooses to wake up and go, I’m going to do drugs and die today. Nobody does that. To say it’s a choice is wrong.”
Boswell plans for the support group to meet Wednesday evenings at 7 p.m., with the invitation open and free to all.
"If I can help one person, save one person from dying, I’ve done my job," she says.
"Sharing experiences and knowing there are people that have gone through exactly what you have gone through helps a lot. People talk to me and they tell me their stories and they’re sad and I cry with them. If I can make them feel a little bit better it helps me feel better too."
To learn more, email Boswell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Email Managing Editor Matt Preprost at email@example.com