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VIDEO: Black balloon walk to mourn deaths from opioid crisis in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows

About 20 participants walked downtown streets with black balloons

Rhonda Murphy has lost more than 60 friends in the opioid crisis.

Most recently she lost her friend Louise.

“She was a beautiful soul,” said the Maple Ridge resident, who was marching with a black balloon downtown Maple Ridge to honour those who have lost their lives due to illicit drugs.

“Very artistic and, just, saw the beauty in everything,” said Murphy of her friend who died of a fentanyl overdose and left behind a son in his 20’s.

Murphy, herself, was on the streets and used to use fentanyl. But not anymore. She has been off the drug for eight months now, she was a heroin addict since she was 14.

“I’ve lost so many friends. Too many. It has to stop,” she said as she walked along Lougheed Highway Wednesday afternoon.

March 6 was Black Balloon Day, a day that was started in the United States by Diane and Lauren Hurley in memory of their family member, Greg Tremblay, a father of four, who died of an overdose at the age of 38 on March 6, 2015.

And, according to Overdose Lifeline, an American non-profit that helps people affected by addiction and substance use disorders through support, advocacy and education, the day is now marked internationally.

On the seventh year anniversary of Black Balloon Day in Canada, this was the second year an official in-person event was held in Maple Ridge – Moms Stop the Harm started the local campaign in 2016.

Murphy was encouraged to see so many participating in this years event – about 20 people altogether.

“It’s good to see people getting involved,” she said. “People don’t seem to think that it’s going to touch their lives, but it does, it touches everybody’s life.”

Last year the BC Coroners Service reported 53 people in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows lost their lives to unregulated drugs, up from 37 in 2022 – the highest number in the last seven years.

RELATED: Grieving Maple Ridge mother calls for decriminalization of drugs for Black Balloon Day

A shock to Jerrica Hackett, organizer and project coordinator with Stop Overdose Ridge Meadows, STORM. Last year they ordered 37 black balloons for the event, one to represent each person who died in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows. This year she couldn’t believe she needed 53 balloons.

“It’s not over, it’s continuing,” said Hackett of the illicit drug crisis plaguing the community and the province.

“We see the increase in our weekly outreach efforts,” she noted, about the two teams of volunteers who go out into the streets with meals and harm reduction supplies for people.

“We used to accommodate for about 50 lunches and we are having to up those numbers because sometimes on our outreach efforts we are seeing 70 to 80 people. I think it really speaks to what’s going on in the economy and what’s going on in the toxic drug crisis and those numbers are reflected in the harm reduction supplies we hand out as well,” she said, adding those supplies should not be limited.

The more supplies are limited, the more likely there will be cross-contamination of supplies which leads to overdose, explained Hackett.

“If people are using different substances and sharing the same supplies, someone can consume a substance they weren’t planning on intending to consume which could lead to an overdose,” she said.

ALSO: New action team in Maple Ridge tackles opioid overdoses

Across the province there were 198 suspected unregulated drug deaths in January this year, a 14 per cent decrease over the number of deaths in January 2023, and about 6.4 deaths per day, according to the Coroners Service. And fentanyl was detected in 76 per cent of those deaths, carfentanil in two.

As of January, Vancouver, Surrey, and Nanaimo have experienced the highest amount of deaths due to unregulated drugs in the province.

Jesse Sokol, STORM peer coordinator, said that more outreach is needed, more harm reduction and better policies put in place by government.

“It breaks my heart,” he said of the amount of deaths locally reported last year.

Wendylee Richards was holding a faded, colour photograph of her brother who died in 2016 of an illicit drug overdose.

“He was a father. He has a son named Nathan and he is one of the funniest men I know,” she remarked.

“I’m sorry he’s gone, but I know he is with me today.”

Colleen Flanagan

About the Author: Colleen Flanagan

I got my start with Black Press Media in 2003 as a photojournalist.
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