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Grande Prairie woman wants province to declare opioid crisis a public health emergency

A Grande Prairie woman is calling on the Alberta Government to declare the current opioid crisis a public health emergency after her brother died of an overdose last year. Following 22-year-old Sebastian Heemskerk’s passing, Avalon Heemskerk started a petition asking the government “to seek possible solutions through increased Alberta Health and social programs assistance along with a public awareness campaign.”

Avalon says she would like to see the province’s focus be on prevention as well as recovery.

“The main goal of this petition is to get the government to admit that we have a serious problem and to take more concessive steps to address it. Right now when you try to talk to politicians about the opioid epidemic, quite often they say, ‘oh, well we have all these great programs that we run.'”

That was her experience when she spoke to politicians about her brother’s death, saying their responses always revolved around programs already in place. Avalon says, while those programs help some people, there are many others like her brother that they don’t help.

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“Even the rehab programs we have in Alberta aren’t long enough to really create lasting effects for a lot of people, and there’s scientific research that shows you need about 90 days in a rehab to have a solid base and a lot of our rehabs are 21 days. We can see in other countries where they have beat their addiction issues and they have brought overdose rates down simply by investing more in youth.”

Sebastian Heemskerk in his youth
(Photo Supplied)

Avalon explains that growing up her brother struggled with health issues, including Type-1 diabetes, a brain arteriovenous malformation, and epilepsy off and on. Her parents advocated to get her brother into programs that would help, but he kept getting rejected because his physical or mental needs were too high.

She argues this played a part as in Grande Prairie or other rural areas in the province there isn’t the same access to resources and programs that people have elsewhere. As her brother got older, he became sicker and he started to suffer from depression, he turned to drugs to self-medicate.

“I saw that my brother fell down this path that a lot of other kids were falling down, he stayed at the Sunrise House [Youth Emergency Shelter] for quite a while and a lot of the other people he stayed at the Sunrise House with ended up falling down the same path as him,” Avalon says. “So this whole group of kids and teenagers who were all accessing services in the Sunrise House is great, but I think that place like the Sunrise House needs more support; schools need more support.”

Sebastian Heemskerk on his 22nd Birthday
(Photo supplied)

Sebastian passed away on June 22, 2021 of a methamphetamine overdose. Tests done after his death showed the drugs were laced with fentanyl. After that, Avalon learned of five other deaths that happened in the community that same week. As she collected signatures she continued to hear similar stories.

“I ran into a lot of people who said, ‘oh my grandson, he passed from this,’ or some other relative whether it was a brother or a sister. There is a lot of pain and a lot of people don’t necessarily know how many other people are experiencing this pain as well. Because there is so much stigma around opioid deaths, people don’t want to say what their loved on died from; people aren’t aware of how many people it is that are dying from this cause.”

Avalon adds that every time someone dies from an overdose there is a ripple effect of people who loved them, saying, “when one person dies it affects 100 people.” While collecting signatures as she heard a lot of people say they needed to access more resources and needed extra support after a loved one died.

Last week Avalon, along with her family and friends, sat in the gallery at the Alberta Legislature as the petition was presented. She says the wording of the petition was specifically done so all political parties in the caucus could get behind it and help acknowledge and work towards ending this epidemic.

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