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VIDEO: Name-burning ceremony honours those lost to overdose crisis in Abbotsford

‘They were wanted. They were real. They were loved.’

A drug reaction that required the use of naloxone to revive a man at a public event on Wednesday in Abbotsford was a stark reminder of the dangers of substance use.

A small community of mourners had gathered at the Abbotsford Community Hub – where Phoenix Society is the cornerstone agency – to honour those they’ve lost to drug overdose when the incident took place, delaying the start of the event. The man was conscious and was taken to hospital by ambulance.

The event that followed was held on the same day the B.C. Coroner’s office announced that six people died every day in B.C. in 2021 due to the toxic drug supply. In Abbotsford, the total for 2021 was 86 lives lost.

Phoenix Society invited their staff and peers to join in a burning ceremony, writing names of the people they know who have passed away on slips of paper before setting them aflame. The event was a time for healing, but also acknowledged the ever-increasing number of lives being lost.

Everyone was invited to write the name of a friend or loved one on a sticky note. With the fire lit, each name was read off with a memory or fact about the person who had passed. There were tears, laughs and even surprise.

The first name to be read was also the most recent life lost. He had passed away just the day before.

A mother and daughter’s names were read out and burned together, and one man reacted with shock, not realizing they were gone.

“They’re family,” he said, before a support worker went to him for a comforting embrace.

Phoenix Society’s support workers in Abbotsford went from doing an average of eight overdose reversals in all of 2020 to seeing 25 in a month by the end of 2021.

Amanda Rigdon, manager of programs for Phoenix Society Fraser East, said they are hoping the ceremony sheds light on the sheer number of overdoses in the community.

They also hope to get the message out that there are names behind the numbers.

“We’ve lost too many people,” Rigdon said. “They were wanted. They were real. They were loved.”

The staff at Phoenix Society are now seeing one or two clients die each week, a number they call staggering.

“We’re losing more people than we ever have before,” Rigdon said.

But they still have hope, and they see it when their front-line staff show up day after day, despite what they’re facing.

“The workers really feel they are fighting an invisible war,” she said. “It’s exhausting.”

However, given the right tools and support, individuals who struggle with addiction can often thrive. While Phoenix and other groups are dedicated to supporting their clients through their addiction, society in general needs to see there’s hope, too.

Rigdon said they are also hoping that funding can be found to help all users consume safely. While there are safe injection sites available to users, the majority of clients at Phoenix Society choose to inhale or smoke drugs.

With no dedicated, supervised space, many are forced to use in “cracks and crevices” around town, and often in isolated spaces where there are no staff or peers to keep an eye on them.

“People are passing away in treacherous environments,” Rigdon said, and they’d love to see a stronger focus on providing supports for this kind of drug user. At the same time, they would also love to see users stop injecting drugs.

One man’s name was read who died alone in a portable toilet that then caught fire. Another man’s body was found in Mill Lake. One young woman’s name hit Rigdon hard — she had been released from hospital with a naloxone kit into a cab. She died shortly after.

At the event, there was also talk about the dire emergency with the kinds of drugs people are taking. Drug reactions are becoming more common, as they are mixed with various chemicals and purity of drugs has declined. Just this week, the centre has seen seven cases of drug reaction in their clients.

An estimated 2,224 British Columbians died from toxic drug poisonings in 2021, making it the most lethal year in the province’s history.

It has now been five years since then-provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall declared B.C.’s first public health emergency.

For help with addictions in Abbotsford, see a full list of resources in the 2021 Fraser Valley Overdose Prevention Guide by clicking here.

For more information about the services provided by Phoenix Society at the Abbotsford Community Hub, phone 604-854-1101.

READ MORE: Black Press Media launches updated Overdose Prevention resource guide


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Jessica Peters

About the Author: Jessica Peters

I began my career in 1999, covering communities across the Fraser Valley ever since.
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