'Dying from shame': North Shore dad advocates for policy change after losing son to B.C.'s opioid crisis

Sitting on his boat brings back a flood of memories for North Shore father Matthew Witt.

It’s the same vessel he and his son Sebastian were set to embark on a weeklong sailing trip, almost six years ago now.

Sebastian, or Seb for short, had been clean for more than a year at the time, after struggling with an opioid addiction. Four days before they were due to set sail on their father-and-son adventure, Seb relapsed. He didn’t tell his dad or his friends he was having problems again, and alone in his room on the night of May 18, 2015, he turned back to a habit he had been trying to shake since he was 16 years old.

He died after taking a toxic supply of fentanyl at age 20.

Seb was found in his room with his rescue dog, Rio, by his side. The two had been inseparable, said Witt, adding he’ll never forget what it felt like to have to pull a confused Rio away from his son for the coroner.

“He had a relapse – and this is where the stigma comes in – instead of coming and talking to us or his friends or anyone, he did what causes so many people to die,” Witt said. “He was in his room by himself, he used after having not used for a long time, and the fentanyl killed him.

“It’s a story that’s becoming too common.”

Witt is not alone in his grief. In 2020, there were 1,724 illicit drug toxicity deaths in British Columbia, according to BC Coroners Service figures, and the numbers are continuing to surge. A further 329 people have died in the province in the first two months of 2021, with the highest death rates in the Fraser and Vancouver Coastal Health authorities.

February was the 11th consecutive month in which B.C. has recorded more than 100 lives lost to the opioid crisis. There were 155 deaths recorded for the month. That’s more than five deaths per day.

Heartbreaking national data further emphasizes the severity of the situation, with 19,355 “opioid-related overdoses” between January of 2016 and September of 2020.

When Seb started using opioids, “It was the early days of this crisis, now it's a full-blown emergency,” Witt said.

“Back then, fentanyl was around but people were so cognisant about it,” he recalled.

Seb would have been 26 years old on March 31, 2021. Born in Costa Rica, he moved to the North Shore with his family when he was eight years old. He’d later spend time between B.C. and visiting his mother and other relatives in Central America.

“Family was very important to him,” Witt said. “He loved and cared deeply for his mother and his two half sisters – he was fiercely protective of all three. He was a very loving and caring kid.”

Growing up, the Rockridge Secondary student was like any other North Van teenager. He loved the mountains, the ocean and sports. His dad said he was the sort of kid who “had a strong moral compass” and couldn’t stand “injustice or bullying,” but was also a “very funny person with a sharp sense of humour and quit wit.”

“He played rugby, hockey, soccer, loved snowboarding, sailing, music. … And then, him and his friends got involved in OxyContin, and it was just too much for a lot of them,” Witt said, adding that a school friend of Seb’s was prescribed the drug.

Sebastian Witt as a teenager, on his father's boat, in North Vancouver. Sebastian died after taking a toxic supply of fentanyl at age 20, on May 18, 2015.| Matthew Witt

From OxyContin the addiction spiralled, and eventually led to heroin and then fentanyl use.

“It was very difficult for him, in the beginning, just to tell us,” Witt said. “We knew something was going on, but because of the shame, the stigma attached to it, he wasn't entirely forthcoming about the severity of his problems.”

Eventually, it all came out and they were able to find help for Seb. As a parent, Witt said it was extremely difficult, especially six years ago, to find the right assistance.

“You feel helpless,” he said. “Obviously, every parent, all we want to do is protect our children. So, you get a bit frantic trying to find help for them. Trying to get them into detox and to keep them in detox.

“We battled for many years and had what we thought was success.”

Before Seb’s sudden death, he appeared to be “doing well.”

“He had graduated, he was working, and had spent some time with his family in Costa Rica,” Witt said, adding he believed the shame had hindered Seb from asking for help when he needed it most.

Witt has been focused on trying to change that negative stigma through advocacy work ever since he lost his son. He wants to shift drug addiction further out of the criminal and moral realm and further into the public health sphere.

“A huge issue is the shame around addiction and substance use that drives people to do exactly what Seb did – use alone in their room,” Witt said.

“We need to move towards an attitude where we're dealing with this through public health and creating a regulated safe supply to stop fentanyl from killing people.

“That'll stop people from hiding their addictions in shame. Dying from shame.”

Not only is it a personal cause for Witt, but as a firefighter in Metro Vancouver he’s seen how the opioid crisis has grown and the damage it’s doing, with call outs to overdoses “almost every shift.”

“I recently had six call outs in one shift at work,” he recalled. “I usually swear putting down the phone – especially the ones that come in at 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. in the morning and your first thought is ‘that person has been down all night. So, our chances of bringing him or her back are slim.’”

He said, thankfully, more and more people are now aware of naloxone, a medication proven to temporarily reverse an opioid-related overdose, and it “was saving countless lives.”

On his advocacy journey, Witt became a member of Moms Stop The Harm (MSTH), a nation-wide group which aims “to change failed drug policies and provide peer support to grieving families and those with loved ones who use or have used substances.”

In November of 2020, MSTH asked municipalities and Indigenous communities across the country to consider passing a resolution which asks the federal government to declare the opioid overdose crisis to be a national public health emergency and to develop a pan-Canadian plan that looks at decriminalization and legal regulation of drugs.

“We're talking about having a safer drug supply, if people aren't ready to go on Methadone, Suboxone or Kadian [opioid agonist medications that act slowly in the body and work to prevent withdrawal and reduce cravings],” Deb Hailey, who is a board member and secretary of MSTH, said.

“The public generally doesn't understand why you would do that. But what we say is, it's not about giving them drugs, it's about keeping them alive, so that they can go on to further treatments, because the drugs on the street are poisoned.

“If we don't find a way to keep people alive, we're going to keep losing them.”

So far, 32 municipalities have passed the resolution and forwarded it to Patty Hajdu, Federal Minister of Health. A further 11 municipalities have passed part of the resolution or taken other actions.

Witt is one of 27 residents on the North Shore who are members of MSTH. He shared his story with the City of North Vancouver in the hope they would put the resolution on their agenda as well.

And, they did.

The city joined the fight on March 8. At council’s general meeting, a motion put forward by Mayor Linda Buchanan and councillor Jessica McIlroy, with part of the MSTH resolution and other actions, was passed unanimously by council.

“Our community and communities across the country have lost too many already,” Buchanan said at the meeting, adding later that she has friends who’ve lost children and she knows the matter was close to other council members.

“We do need to treat this crisis with the same urgency of that of the COVID-19 pandemic. B.C. is the only province in Canada with a Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, and I think the province does have a good framework in terms of the pathway to hope.”

McIlroy broke down in tears as she spoke on the motion, saying while the B.C. government has completed a number of reports to call for different actions and recommendations, “we've only seen the crisis continue to worsen and overdoses continue to rise.”

“It has been recognized by the B.C. Public Health Office that we cannot treat our way out of this problem, and we cannot arrest our way out of this problem,” she said. “This is why a national health emergency is appropriate and a co-ordinated national response is necessary to prevent any further unnecessary losses of life.”

Coun. Don Bell has also felt the wrath of this crisis firsthand.

“A lot of times you hear a comment: ‘well, the people that die from overdoses are Downtown Eastside Vancouver people … street people,” he said. “It's not. It's everybody. It crosses the whole spectrum of society. I know several families who have lost family members, and I personally lost my grandson.

“Five days after his 31st birthday he died of an overdose and I can tell you that it's a loss that stays, and it's so tragic that it could have been avoided.”

Following the city's motion, the districts of West Vancouver and North Vancouver also passed resolutions supporting MSTH at their April 12 general meetings.

Witt thanked the councils for passing the motions, and for having the courage to share their own personal experiences on the mounting issue he believed wasn’t spoken about enough.

“I think it's under the table on the North Shore,” he said.” “I’ve been going to a child loss support group since Seb died, and the number of parents there who have lost their children to toxic drug supply has just been going up and up.”

Catherine Sosnowsky, who for 20 years has run the North Shore Compassionate Friends support group for grieving parents, said, like Witt who attends, she had noted an increase in the number of parents attending the group whose children died from a toxic supply of fentanyl over the past three years.

“Unfortunately, lately that is the commonest cause of new people coming to us, they’ve lost a child through fentanyl,” she said.

“We could have three people at a meeting out of nine people that had lost their children to drugs.”

She said the stories were always different. “Sometimes it’s a child who has been addicted and has gone to rehab … and the parents have struggled to save the child,” Sosnowsky said. “Other times it’s just a shock. The child took the wrong thing at a party.”

With deaths continuing to rise, Hailey said it was clear changes needed to be made.

“On April 14, it will be five years since Dr. Perry Kendall declared B.C. in an overdose epidemic and emergency … and here we are still today,” she said.

“It's very scary because you would think that after five years, we'd have some things that would decrease the number of people dying, but when we have a really big increase in rates, you really have to look at why that is and what could we be doing better because, clearly, it's a very odd emergency to have declared five years ago and have that emergency continue to grow.”

Others in B.C. are also calling for a safe drug supply.

Lisa Lapointe, B.C.'s chief coroner, said in a statement that the increased variability and toxicity in illicit drugs was continuing to significantly contribute to the overall number of suspected deaths.

BC Coroners Service data from February showed that carfentanil, a more lethal analogue of fentanyl, was detected in 18 of the 155 deaths (12%), an increase from the January total of 14, the largest monthly figure recorded since April 2019.

"Across the province, the risk of serious harm or death is very real for anyone using a substance purchased from the illicit market,” Lapointe said in the statement.

“Decisive action is urgently needed to ensure an accessible, regulated safe supply and to provide people with the supervised consumption, treatment and recovery services they need."

In a statement on March 29, Hajdu acknowledged "the opioid overdose crisis has worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic” and announced $20 million in federal funding for the distribution of naloxone kits and opioid overdose response training to support communities hit hard.

For others struggling with family members battling addictions, Witt could not stress enough the importance of open communication and providing non-judgmental support. He encouraged people to do everything in their power to make sure their loved one “never uses alone,” to have a naloxone kit on hand and to download the Lifeguard app.

“Just keep your child alive,” he said. “Then you can manage their rehabilitation together.”

Hailey, who lost her daughter to heroin at age 21, added to never stop “advocating for your kid.”

“Don't give up,” she said. “Let them know that you love them. It's not always easy, but there is help available. They don't have to struggle alone with this.”

For now, Witt said he’ll continue to work with MSTH to advocate for policy change.

“Seb would be heartbroken to know the devastation his death has caused, and he would fight, and want us to fight, to make sure no other family has to live with such unbearable loss and grief,” he said.

On March 29 of this year, two days shy of what would have been Seb’s 26th birthday, Witt and some of Seb’s closest friends gathered at his favourite spot, Larson Beach near Horsehoe Bay, with Rio.

They wanted to “remember him and honour him,” Witt said, adding they released a biodegradable white balloon into the night sky and wished him, “Feliz Cumpleanos.”

“In his name, and for all the other children we have lost, we need to change our attitude to addiction and mental health in order to save lives, families, and communities.”

If you have a family member going through addiction struggles and don’t know where to turn, you can start by calling the HealthLink B.C. 811 number to find services in your area. For those with youth up to the age of 24, you can contact Foundry – a one stop shop of services.

Elisia Seeber, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, North Shore News