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‘We weren’t quick enough’: Nelson event marks International Overdose Awareness Day

10 illicit drug deaths in West Kootenay so far in 2021
Duncan Grady, an elder with the Circle of Indigenous Nations Society, speaks to a small crowd in Nelson during an event to mark International Overdose Awareness Day. Photo: Tyler Harper

Marty Sutmoller’s memory of Sebastian Witt is of a child, not a statistic.

Witt played with Sutmoller’s own two children as they grew up together in West Vancouver. Her children are now adults, but Witt never had the chance to grow old with them. He died of fentanyl poisoning in 2015 at just 20 years old, another victim of the toxic drug supply crisis that since 2016 has killed 7,760 British Columbians.

Sutmoller spoke about Witt’s life in front of a small crowd at a vigil held in Nelson on Tuesday (Aug. 31) to mark International Overdose Awareness Day. She said people suffering from substance use disorders are dying without safe supply options.

“It’s not up to them, they just have an addiction, and because of that they have to resort to a poisoned supply,” said Sutmoller.

“That’s where my heart lies right now. It’s just that people, they don’t have the choice. They have to take their life into their hands because of their addiction, which isn’t their fault.”

Like everywhere else in B.C., Nelson has been impacted by the crisis.

In 2021, up to June 30, four people have died due to illicit drug toxicity in the Nelson local health area, which includes Salmo, Ymir and parts of the Slocan Valley, according to the BC Coroners Service.

Three people have also died in Castlegar – two in Trail, and one in Grand Forks.

Just six people died in the Nelson area between 2010 to 2015, but 17 have died since 2016.

In B.C., meanwhile, 1,011 British Columbians have already died this year from January until the end of June. Illegal fentanyl and carfentanil are responsible for 87 per cent of those deaths.

Marty Sutmoller reads a poem in the memory of Sebastian Witt, who died of fentanyl poisoning in 2015. Photo: Tyler Harper
Marty Sutmoller reads a poem in the memory of Sebastian Witt, who died of fentanyl poisoning in 2015. Photo: Tyler Harper

Mandy Root, a substance use outreach councillor with Freedom Quest Services Society in Nelson, also spoke at the vigil in Cottonwood Park.

One of Root’s clients, an 18-year-old woman, had just returned after completing a 10-week treatment program in Vancouver when she relapsed and died earlier this year.

Root had known her since 2016, and struggled to find her help. There are no detox and treatment facilities for youth in the Kootenays. The closest options are in Kelowna and Vancouver, which can be roadblocks for young people needing help.

“Kelowna is a big centre and it’s not what she’s used to,” said Root. “She’s a rural person, and so we were going to have an appointment with them to call and ask questions and stuff, but we didn’t make it.

“We weren’t quick enough.”

Tuesday’s event was also notable for its poor attendance. Of the approximately 40 people on hand, many were either already employed by local social services or members of Nelson’s street community.

Root felt it was like preaching to the choir. Mayor John Dooley and councillor Nicole Charlwood were the only local elected officials present, and Root said it was disappointing none of the candidates in the ongoing federal election were on hand.

“We’re losing people, and I wish that the government would take it as seriously as they are taking the pandemic. Because it is a pandemic.”


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Four people have already died in Nelson this year due to the toxic drug supply. Photo: Tyler Harper

Tyler Harper

About the Author: Tyler Harper

I’m editor-reporter at the Nelson Star, where I’ve worked since 2015.
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