Edmonton mom seeks justice after daughter's fatal fentanyl overdose

Hours after Cassidy LaFleche left the west Edmonton townhouse where she lived with her family, she was dead from a fentanyl overdose.

Later on that October morning, a police officer with kind eyes broke the news to her mom.

"I just lost it, I couldn't believe and my world fell apart," said Carolyn Lafleche, a member of Alexander First Nation who has long lived in Edmonton. 

Lafleche finds it hard to believe her 25-year-old daughter would have knowingly taken the fentanyl that killed her last month. She thinks Cassidy took another drug laced with the deadly opioid.

"Those drug dealers should be charged," said Lafleche. "I bet they don't even realize my daughter died. And they continue to sell this drug. It has to stop before more kids lose their lives.

If I could prevent another mother's heartbreak, I'd do it in a heartbeat."

'If I could prevent another mother's heartbreak, I'd do it in a heartbeat' - Carolyn Lafleche

This one mother's heartbreak, her frustration, comes as the police and courts appear to be taking a harder line against dealers who sell fentanyl, an opioid that has killed 1,345 Albertans in the past 32 months.

A report released by the Alberta First Nations Information Governance Centre (AFNIGC) and the Alberta government in November 2017 found the rate of opioid-related deaths among First Nations Albertans was three times higher than for non-Indigenous people.

 "Children are left without mothers and parents, and it just is devastation to a nation that loves and cares about their family members," said Bonnie Healy, executive director of AFNIGC.

Healy is a registered nurse from the Kainai First Nation in southern Alberta, where the opioid epidemic has hit especially hard. 

"Opioid use is just a systemic outcome of unresolved trauma, and trauma didn't just happen from residential school, it happened from time of contact," she said.

At Lafleche's home this week, family and friends flipped through photo albums that document two decades worth of happier times: Cassidy as a little girl competing in her jingle dress; Cassidy posing for her first modelling contract; Cassidy's smile beaming out from family photos with her sister and younger brothers.

Large white dream catchers hang in the living room where Lafleche and her supporters shared nightmarish stories about families from their community. They spoke about those who lost their children in drug-related deaths and the ones who worry their kids might be next.

"We don't want any more of these young people dying," said Lafleche. "A lot of people want to sweep it under the rug. It's not going to go away."

'We don't want any more of these young people dying. A lot of people want to sweep it under the rug. It's not going to go away.' - Carolyn Lafleche

It's a tragedy the Lafleche family might have avoided, if not for the events of 2012. That's when Cassidy was sexually assaulted and the once bubbly and outgoing teenager first turned to drugs, her mom said.

Last year, Lafleche said she and Cassidy's father managed to get a court order to have their daughter admitted to Alberta Hospital. After months of treatment she appeared to be on the right track. Then in July, Cassidy's grandmother died of cancer.

Cassidy's cheeks had hollowed out and she began acting more aggressive. The demons were back, she was hooked on methamphetamine again.

Barriers to services

As she sought help for her daughter, Lafleche said she repeatedly encountered roadblocks: health-care workers who failed to see the gravity of Cassidy's situation; the inability to access services for an adult daughter who wasn't in the right state of mind to do it herself; or Cassidy's paranoia that made it difficult to travel to a counselling session by taxi or bus.

In between 12-hour night shifts, Lafleche tried to schedule appointments and keep a close eye on her daughter. Sometimes, when Cassidy seemed especially anxious, Lafleche took the Wi-Fi cord with her to work, so her daughter couldn't buy drugs on Facebook.

Better support systems for the parents of drug users would make a big difference, she said. "This way, us parents wouldn't feel so alone trying to help our children."

On Oct. 28, dressed in a black hoodie, Cassidy and a friend headed out for the evening.

What Lafleche has since learned suggests her daughter stopped at two houses that night near 95th Street and 115th Avenue, before returning to her friend's place. At 5 a.m. officers found her without a pulse. Edmonton police are investigating her death.  

Upcoming manslaughter trials

Since 2016, city police have laid three manslaughter charges in separate cases related to fentanyl overdoses. Two cases are scheduled to go to trial next year, while the charge in the third case has been stayed.

Another charge of manslaughter in an overdose death in Edson was stayed; the accused is now awaiting sentencing on trafficking charges.

Edmonton criminal defence lawyer Lionel Chartrand said a manslaughter charge in most cases would be difficult to prove. The prosecutor has to show that a reasonable person would foresee the risk of bodily harm as a result of trafficking fentanyl, he said.

He described possible scenarios, such as a dealer who knows the person they are selling to has a history of overdosing, or helps a buyer who is already intoxicated consume more by, for instance, injecting them.

Nathan Gross/CBC

"It would have to be, in my view, more than just a simple sale," said Chartrand. "But that remains to be seen. Some courts may rule that with the present day knowledge of the number of deaths, that a reasonable person would foresee that."

In general, said Chartrand, prosecution departments are asking for more serious penalties, and the courts are hiking jail sentences for the trafficking of fentanyl because of it's increased danger compared to other drugs. But he disputes that it's an effective deterrent, pointing out that dealers are often struggling with the same issues of mental health, poverty or addiction.

"Generally, they're not going to think, 'Well, I might get seven years instead of three, so I'm not going to do this,' " said Chartrand.

In August, Native Friendship Centres in Edmonton, Grande Prairie, Calgary and Lethbridge received a $400,000 provincial grant to provide culturally sensitive services for treatment and harm reduction.

It's part of a $5 million investment by the province to help Indigenous communities address the opioid crisis.

At the federal level, Indigenous Services Canada said it has invested more than $350 million this year, on and off reserves, for culturally relevant mental health and prevention and treatment services for addiction.

In a statement, Alberta Health Services expressed condolences to the Lafleche family and said it has focussed on reducing the harmful effects of addiction by improving access to treatment and expanding programs such as the opening of safe consumption sites.

"Even with the variety of treatment options available, we understand there can be frustration when navigating the system, and it can be challenging to get your loved one the help they need," AHS officials wrote. "It can be challenging to assist individuals who have problems with substances, because as adults they can make their own decisions about use."

andrea.huncar@cbc.ca @andreahuncar