Original Published 13:50 Apr 15, 2022

By Moira Wyton, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Debbie Lachapelle sometimes drives around Vancouver’s West End near English Bay, looking for her daughter among the tree-lined streets and  rows of aging apartment blocks.

Erika Paige Lachapelle died  almost a year ago on April 25. She was 29 and fell 12 stories from her  apartment balcony. Her death was ruled a suicide, but Lachapelle  believes her daughter overdosed and either fell or was pushed.

Erika had been introduced to substance use that year. And then she was gone.

“I feel empty, numb, lonely. I miss her,” Lachapelle, a single mother, said in Sunset Beach Park. “It was me and her.”

“I lost my future. I’ll never be a grandmother. I’ll never have a son-in-law.”

On Thursday, Lachapelle  returned to English Bay with others to mourn the dead and demand action  on the sixth anniversary of the overdose public health emergency in  British Columbia.

The gathering of about 40 people organized  by the advocacy group Moms Stop the Harm represents just a small  fraction of the bereaved left behind by the more than 9,400 people who  have been killed by toxic drugs since 2016. 

“Everyone here knows exactly what it feels like,” Lachapelle said.

Now in its seventh year, B.C.’s oldest  public health emergency is claiming more lives than ever, with drugs  that are becoming increasingly toxic, potent and unpredictable. 

At least 2,232 people died of drug  poisonings last year. The per capita death toll has more than doubled to  43.5 deaths per 100,000 since 2016.

Last year, on the fifth anniversary of the  public health emergency, the B.C. government announced it would ask  Ottawa permission to decriminalize personal possession of drugs in the  province.

The submission is still being considered,  and other promised efforts to separate people from the toxic drug  supply, such as safe supply, have stalled.

“Our hearts go out to those affected by the  toxic drug crisis,” read a Thursday statement from Premier John Horgan,  Minister for Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson and  provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry. 

“This is an anniversary that cannot  continue. We need to come together to protect British Columbians now and  into the future. While we are making progress, we know there is much  more to do.”

A recent report from a panel of experts  convened by the chief coroner found the government had failed to act in  an urgent, co-ordinated and accountable way to respond to the crisis. 

It urged action to replace the poisoned supply in order to save lives while other resources scaled up.

“Much greater access to safer supply across  the province is critical to preventing future loss of life,” said chief  coroner Lisa Lapointe in a Thursday statement. “This, alongside  decriminalization of possession for personal use, greater access to  evidence-based treatment and care, and a continuum of services that  meets people where they are, will support those at risk and provide a  path out of this crisis.”

Moms Stop the Harm board  member Traci Letts said in the last two years the organization’s  membership has doubled to more than 3,300 people across Canada. About  half of those members are in B.C.

“I never thought I would see the deaths  compile like they have in six years,” said Letts, whose son has dealt  with substance use issues for more than a decade. She joined the  organization in 2018. 

“We thought safe supply was on the horizon, but it’s been a dismal failure, no one can get it in B.C.”

As harm reduction volunteers from Street  Saviours Outreach Society trained attendees to use naloxone to reverse  an opioid overdose, mourning loved ones stood shoulder to shoulder. A  field of tiny purple flags in the ground flapped in the wind, each  representing a life lost to toxic drugs.

Matthew Witt stood back from the crowd.  Witt’s son, Sebastian Witt, died of a fentanyl poisoning on May 18,  2015, at age 20. He had relapsed after a year in recovery from opioid  addiction.

Witt has been grieving his son’s life for the entire span of the public health emergency.

“The grief changes but it never goes away. It comes and goes,” Witt said, standing with his son’s rescue dog, Rio.

Lachapelle feels the health-care system  failed Erika, who was hospitalized 12 times in the nine months before  her death. Lachapelle herself at one point revived her from an overdose.

She wants more to be done so no more parents bury their children like she had to.

“I just hope there aren’t so many more deaths,” said Lachapelle. “And I hope that I’ll meet her again one day.

This item reprinted with permission from The Tyee, Vancouver, British Columbia