Remembering Peer Advocate Paige Phillips, Who Lost Her Life to Toxic Drugs

·5 min read

Paige Phillips is being remembered as a fierce friend, loving mother and “tiny fighter” for the rights of drug users, single mothers and marginalized people in British Columbia.

Phillips died last Sunday of a toxic drug poisoning in Victoria. The BC Coroners Service is investigating. The 32-year-old was a mother to two young daughters with her partner, Jack Phillips.

More than 10,000 people have been killed by the toxic drug crisis in British Columbia since it was declared a public health emergency in 2016.

“Paige was charming and fierce, and she always went down swinging,” said Fred Cameron, who met Phillips while the two were research assistants at the University of Victoria, and later worked with her at SOLID, a peer outreach organization for others with substance-use disorder that provides harm reduction education and employment supports in Victoria. (Jack Phillips asked Cameron to speak to The Tyee in his stead.)

“She spoke up on behalf and gave voice and strength and a place to talk to people who didn’t have it,” Cameron said.

Friend and peer advocate Guy Felicella said Phillips’ death is a reminder that no one, even the most informed community members and activists, are safe from the increasingly poisoned and unpredictable drug supply.

“I’m just so angry at the illicit supply,” said Felicella. “It doesn’t know how to stop taking people. And it sadly takes away your friends, your family, your community, and it’s causing generational trauma.”

In an interview with Postmedia, Jack Phillips said his partner would likely still be alive if there was a safer drug supply available, as experts and advocates have repeatedly called on for years.

The young couple met on the East Coast and moved to Victoria together, founding SOLID in 2007. Paige Phillips also studied business at Camosun College.

SOLID has facilitated employment for nearly 3,500 drug users since it was founded, and expanded to offer emergency housing supports at the start of the pandemic.

Paige’s compassion and deep sense of justice guided her work as an advocate, friends and colleagues told The Tyee. She had had a hard life and always made an effort to break those cycles by being kind to others.

Phillips seemed to have a “biological clock” that told her when and where to find people in downtown Victoria who may need her help, Felicella said.

He recalls Phillips giving someone her last $5 because they needed it more. “She worked hard to get people housed,” he added.

That included speaking up for single mothers who used drugs, who fear asking for help or sharing they are struggling because it can mean they’d lose their children, said Cameron. (Child apprehension is a key risk factor for drug poisonings in B.C.)

And when health-care staff wouldn’t listen to Phillips or other peers about the end-of-life wishes of a dying friend who was unhoused, she sought to change that through the Equity in Palliative Approaches to Care collective.

Equity in Palliative Approaches to Care collective lead researcher and nursing professor Kelli Stajduhar remembers Paige, in tears, recalling how frustrating and dehumanizing it had been to not be able to help her friend. By the time the collective next met, Phillips had condensed 50 pages of advanced care planning documents from the province’s website into a six-page version.

“And she said, ‘I think we can do this with people who use drugs and people who are marginalized in the community,’” said Stajduhar.

“The thing I love about Paige is she was never afraid to say and speak her wisdom,” she added.

A version of that six-page document Phillips drafted is now used in shelters and transitional houses across Victoria to ensure dignified deaths and end-of-life instructions are followed for the most vulnerable. Phillips also went on to help secure funding for a mobile palliative care team operating for vulnerable people in Victoria.

As a result, Stajduhar said, hundreds more people have and will have their end-of-life wishes respected. “Paige was, in some ways, the glue in our community that helped us move the palliative care work forward.”

Phillips made connections in the community for years at the Harbour supervised consumption site, SOLID programming and as a research partner at UVic.

She was also a board member at the BC-Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors. Last November, she helped her half-brother, Scott Heffernan, enter recovery for substance use, he told Postmedia.

And she was instrumental to establishing the burgeoning prescribed safe supply programs saving lives in Victoria, said Felicella.

Colleagues say Phillips’ death is the result of an insufficient response to the crisis, and one which relies on peer workers who may be struggling themselves to help those also in dire need of support.

It’s traumatic, “soul-crushing” work, said Hawkfeather Peterson, an advocate for drug user rights and friend of Phillips in an email. “Our leaders end up statistics for the exact thing they fought so hard to save others from.”

A GoFundMe to support counselling for Phillips’ daughters and their future education and needs organized by Peterson has raised more than $10,000 of its $25,000 goal.

“It can feel like we are fodder being willfully sacrificed so that governments can claim they are trying to [stop] overdose deaths,” said Peterson. “Stable peers tend to relapse, end up in extreme crisis, with no real help.”

Felicella and his wife became fast friends with the Phillips, who visited the Lower Mainland often with their children.

The parents would take the five young kids between them to the park, the mall and the playground. It was healing for Felicella and Phillips to give their children the childhood experiences they hadn’t had.

She had told him she was struggling in recent months, Felicella recalls. “A lot of the time we are good at helping others and not really good at helping ourselves. The work overshadows the other things.”

Her calm and quiet perseverance defined her life and now her legacy, he said. Felicella hopes her daughters can one day take comfort knowing their mother changed so much for the better before her life was cut short.

“They’ll always think, ‘She was a person you could always count on, would always be there and would always fight.’”

Moira Wyton, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Tyee