Photograph by Gabrielle Beer.
Petra Schulz’s son Danny was in recovery when he bought the pill that ended his life. Danny, who was 25 when he died of an overdose, had been through cycles of detox and relapse several times. Back then, Schulz knew very little about substance use and says she worries she and her husband encouraged him to taper off his methadone too soon.
“We just wanted our old Danny back,” says Schulz, who has become one of the country’s leading harm-reduction advocates. “There was a lot of soul searching after his death.”
That was in 2014. The rate of opioid-related deaths has increased dramatically since, reaching an alarming crisis point over the course of the pandemic: approximately 21 deaths in Canada per day in 2021, up from from 12 in 2018. The jump has been fuelled by pandemic-related isolation, causing more drug users to use alone, and a tainted drug supply that’s seen potent opiates such as fentanyl make their way into an increasing number of substances.
The grief from these deaths has torn through the more than 29,000 families who lost someone between January 2016 and September 2021. Indigenous communities have been disproportionately affected. Research from British Columbia’s First Nations Health Authority shows that opioid deaths among Indigenous people living in B.C. doubled in the first year of the pandemic—and rose from a rate 3.9 times higher than other B.C. residents in 2019 to 5.3 times higher in 2020.
Parents who have lost a child to this crisis know the pain associated with it deeply—and thousands of them are fighting back. Thanks to groups such as Moms Stop the Harm (MSTH) and the long-running but now-defunct Moms United and Mandated to Saving Drug Users, a wave of mother-led activism is pushing governments at all levels to adopt harm-reduction approaches.
“We know the war on drugs hasn’t worked,” says Heather Morris, who has studied these groups as part of her PhD research at the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health. “These organizations are advocating for evidence-based treatment. They’re involved in trying to increase access to methadone and suboxone, and they’re also advocating for decriminalizing personal possession of all drugs.” Morris says that advocating for a safe supply of drugs has also been a main plank of such mother-led activism.
Their efforts are paying off. A push from bereaved mothers, along with groups that represent people who use drugs, led the federal government to make naloxone widely available in 2016. Their voices have also helped drive public support for safe consumption sites and push through the federal Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act of 2017, which can protect people who call 911 during an overdose from being charged with possession, Morris says. In May, the government of British Columbia received approval from the federal government to decriminalize small amounts of drugs starting in 2023—something mom-led groups have long called for.
“A bereaved parent provides perspective,” says Morris. “There is some research to suggest that, when you start to hear personal accounts, this empathetic story delivered by a bereaved mother can change people’s opinions toward harm-reduction services.” Here are the stories of some of the mothers doing this work.
Rhona Bowe has known many people, including immediate and extended family members, who have died after struggling with drug use. So many, she says, that it can be overwhelming to think about. But she also knows that her people, the Secwépemc, have survived for thousands of years, so she’s working to bring traditional ways of healing from trauma—and from the addiction that can grow from it—back to her community.
“The treatment centres are not working,” says Bowe, who is developing a form of culturally relevant recovery that focuses on existing cultural and spiritual knowledge and helps participants reintegrate into their communities. “Throughout the years, our people had suffered war . . . How did they get from A to B and still be intact? They had ceremonies, they had medicine and they had the water.”
Bowe’s ideas on recovery involve centres that focus on withdrawal, both in the clinical sense and withdrawal from lifestyle; physical, mental and spiritual wellness education; reconnection with loved ones; and learning to reintegrate with community and address the stigma that often comes with drug use.
“The community has to embrace the ones who fought hard to get home,” says Bowe, who has met with B.C.’s Interior Health unit to share her ideas, but is also working on realizing her vision independently. “They embraced residential school survivors; they can embrace the survivors of the streets. After all, it’s all connected.”
Bowe, a traditional ethnobotanist, has helped create materials on the opioid crisis for B.C.’s First Nations Health Authority. She also regularly speaks with community groups inside and beyond her nation, as well as members of the health-care and policing communities, about working toward reducing the stigma often faced by people who use drugs.
She says some people called her an enabler for supporting her daughter Juanita, who died at 37, in her darkest moments. To her, the real harm comes from turning away people seeking help. She believes shame is among the main factors preventing people from healing from their addictions. “Some people look at drug users like, if they’re addicted, they’re less than human,” Bowe says. “You’re one pill away from becoming an addict. You’re one trauma away from becoming an addict,” she adds. “Addiction is not prejudiced—it loves everybody.”
Petra Schulz is laser-focused on pushing governments to give people who use drugs access to a safe supply of regulated alternatives to toxic street drugs. The Edmonton activist and co-founder of Moms Stop the Harm says that while it’s impossible to stop people from using drugs, it’s possible to stop many from dying from drug use.
“All the treatment in the world is not going to help if the person does not live long enough to get there,” says Schulz, who lost her 25-year-old son Danny to a fentanyl overdose on April 30, 2014.
Schulz didn’t know about harm reduction at the time of her son’s death, but now she’s one of its loudest supporters. With co-founders Lorna Thomas and Leslie McBain, Schulz has helped create an organization that is pushing governments at all levels for policies that include safe drug supply and decriminalization of street drugs and minor trafficking. The group also offers support to families who have lost someone, as well as those with loved ones who are using or have used drugs.
MSTH has gained traction by promoting the stories of bereaved families—an effort to connect with people who might otherwise think they couldn’t relate to the lived experience of a person who uses drugs or to addiction. In April, the group sent packets totalling about 29,000 poppy seeds, equal to the number of Canadians who have died while using opioids since 2016, to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to mark May 1—Bereaved Mother’s Day—and represent the need for a safe supply. They’ve sent petitions to Parliament and consulted on a private members’ bill defeated in June 2022 that would have decriminalized drug possession and expunged some drug-related convictions.
Schulz says treating this crisis for what it is would reduce stigma on people who use drugs and encourage those who want help to seek it. As it is now, she says, some people “do anything in their power to hide their use from everyone close to them: their friends, their family, their employer. That means so many people, especially young men, use and die alone.” She adds that many who die from drug use do not have a substance use disorder, but are using occasionally or for the first time.
She says this work is often re-traumatizing, but also helps give meaning to her son’s tragic death. “You want to take what you’ve learned and make it better for others,” she says.
Leslie McBain’s son Jordan was gregarious, popular and adventurous. He loved skateboarding and ran a business installing wood stoves. He’d already faced problems with drugs when his family doctor prescribed oxycodone for a work injury. “I went to [the] and said, ‘This young man is very vulnerable to addiction. Can you please do something else?’ He said, ‘Thanks for the information,’ and continued to prescribe oxy for seven months.”
Once Jordan realized he’d become addicted, he sought help from the same family doctor, who angrily blamed him for the outcome, firing Jordan as a patient. Jordan died of an overdose of prescribed pharmaceuticals in 2014, at 25. After Jordan died, McBain filed a complaint about this doctor’s conduct to the College of Physicians and Surgeons. “It was my first bit of advocacy.”
She’s gotten plenty of experience since then. As a leader at Moms Stop the Harm, she’s helped grow the organization to almost 4,000 members—a powerhouse lobbying bloc and a tragic reflection of the toll of the opioid crisis. She says MSTH has found that even people judgmental about drug use—a stigma she’s working to end—can be convinced to listen to a story from a bereaved mother.
McBain has encountered plenty of people who don’t agree with her stance on harm reduction, and she generally takes “a fairly soft approach, which involves my personal story, some dramatic stats and a brief description of why people use substances. The old adage that you catch more flies with honey is my approach. Arguing never works.”
In addition to her work with MSTH, McBain sits on committees with B.C.’s ministry of mental health and addictions, and works as the family lead for the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use. She has seen “some small progress” on safe supply, which she believes is our only way out of the crisis. B.C. has seven safe supply pilot projects, programs that typically involve a doctor prescribing drugs for users, who report to a clinic regularly to have the drugs dispensed. The next step, she says, is to get rid of the word “pilot” and make the services widely accessible.
At 76, McBain says, “I didn’t think this would be my life at this age, but it’s impossible to walk away. In my entire life, this is probably the most meaning I’ve ever had, doing this work. It’s so important and it’s of the heart.”
Originally published October 2022; updated January 2024.
Subscribe to our newsletters for our very best stories, recipes, style and shopping tips, horoscopes and special offers.