This is one in a series of feature stories by Black Press journalists on the effects of the opioid crisis in Greater Victoria.
Judith Conway travelled across the world to visit his Holiness Pope Francis in March to receive a blessing on a carefully folded series of flags and ribbons.
On each flag and ribbon is a name, and along with them are 4,000 strands of yarn which each represent someone who died of an opioid overdose in Canada, including Conway’s son, Matthew Yvon Conway, who was 29 when he died in November 2017.
Since Pope Francis blessed the project, Conway has been on a mission to carry it forward and spread awareness about the need for change, but she’s been having trouble finding a place to hang the display in Victoria.
The City of Victoria approved the display at the beginning of December, but at this point have not found a suitable spot for the project, which unfolds to be over 100 feet long.
Having the flags and ribbons out is important, Conway said, because it gets people talking.
“I’ve had mothers come up to me after seeing the flags and tell me that they’ve never told anyone how their child died,” Conway said. “This is all part of the stigma of drugs … People go through these huge losses and they can’t talk about it because of the shame of society.”
Conway was aware of the opioid crisis before her son’s death, but has learned much more since then.
“I was a mother who sought support and everything else,”she said, “I was told the same as usual: they have to hit rock bottom … I believe now that the old teachings of AA [Alcoholics Anonymous], which has been a powerful tool for many people, is different than what’s needed now. This is not rock bottom. Rock bottom is death.”
Conway said Matthew was a hardworking, handsome and productive man, and kept up his job until the day he died. He had never had an overdose before.
Matthew became addicted to opioids after enduring a bad accident. He went through rehab, and worked with doctors and therapists to stay sober. He practiced abstinence – refraining from alcohol and narcotics, a move that Conway said isolated him from many of his friends.
The knell for Matthew came from a doctor’s pen.
“I found out from the coroner’s report that Matthew had gone to the hospital for an infection, and that he was prescribed narcotics,” Conway said. Shortly after, Matthew’s renewed dependence led to an overdose.
Before Matthew’s death his mother believed abstinence was the way to go, but now she understands that doesn’t work.
“I have no idea what works. If I knew, my son would still be alive. I’m willing to look at anything that will work and maybe part of that would be decriminalization of drugs.”
Matthew’s death, and the death of thousands of others are preventable, and can be stopped when a community comes together and show support for one another, Conway said. “I believe our society has really lost a sense of community and everyone feels alone. In the old days it took a village to raise a child. Now, I think it takes a village to solve this.”
Preventative movements are happening across B.C., including the establishment of overdose prevention units and calls from municipalities and public health officers for safer access to opioid alternatives.
In April, Black Press Media launched a comprehensive Overdose Prevention Guide and printed 15,000 copies that were sent to doctor’s offices, social service agencies, seniors centres and free magazine stands across the Capital Region.
Still, Conway said, more action is required.
“I think every bit helps. The more that we talk, the more that we try and break down the stigma, I think all of this will help,” she said. “An ounce of prevention saves a lot of money and a lot of lives.”
Conway hopes her project will eventually find a place in a Victoria park, where many people can see it.
You can find other stories in this series on Greater Victoria’s opioid crisis at mondaymag.com. For resources in Greater Victoria, find Black Press Media’s Overdose Prevention Guide online or pick up a printed copy at our office, 818 Broughton St.