Edmonton photo display commemorates loved ones lost to overdoses

It was a sombre occasion for a small group of Edmontonians who spent Saturday morning hanging 59 photos of loved ones lost to overdoses and other substance-related harms along River Valley Road.

The effort is part of The Purple Ribbon Campaign, which runs every August in conjunction with Overdose Awareness Month.

Rebecca Rummery is a member of Moms Stop The Harm, which organized the initiative in the face of rising overdose deaths. 

Data from the Alberta government shows 1,331 Albertans died due to drug poisonings in 2020 — nearly double the year previous.

“We’re losing four Albertans a day,” Rummery said. “When we see the numbers and we see the faces, it really shows that we need to do more.”

Remembering those lost

While similar photo displays have been put up in other cities over the years, this is a first for Edmonton.

Rummery said it’s a way to remember those who have died or suffered permanent injury due to a drug overdose as well as to reduce the stigma of those deaths.

“These are real people. These are someone’s brother or sister, someone’s parent, sibling, partner or friend. So we want to put a face to the crisis,” she said.

Rummery lost her partner four years ago to a drug overdose. She said he suffered a substance abuse disorder and struggled to get the help he needed.

“He should really be here, and if there were more supports he would still be here,” she said.

“That’s the heartbreaking part because when you come out and see these photos, so many of them wanted help and they just couldn’t get it.”

One moment and your life is destroyed.– Cynthia Dea

Cynthia Dea knows the pain of that loss. She came out with the grief support group Healing Hearts to put up a photo of her 24-year-old daughter, who overdosed while on vacation three years ago. 

“We believe she got what she thought was cocaine and it turned out to be fentanyl and carfentanil,” she said. “One moment and your life is destroyed, just destroyed.” 

Dea said her daughter was just a casual user. For her, the stigma has been the hardest thing to deal with.

Cynthia Dea lost her 24 year old daughter to an overdose 3 years ago and says more needs to be done to prevent further deaths. (John Shypitka/CBC)

“We want people to know you’re not safe just because you’re not a drug addict or just because you don’t live on the streets. This happens to everybody,” she said.

“It’s very frustrating for those parents whose children perhaps had drug issues to have society say, ‘They did drugs, that’s what you get.'”

Both women say this health crisis has been overshadowed by the pandemic over the past year, and they’re hoping to see more time and resources devoted to preventing these types of deaths.

They’re calling on both the provincial and federal governments to do more to mitigate the issue, including ensuring safe consumption sites remain accessible, and offering affordable treatment options.

“It is heartbreaking for the families who are losing people,” said Rummery. “For me it’s been four years and there hasn’t been much change.”

In the meantime, the 59 photos will remain hanging along River Valley Road for the month of August. 

It was an emotional time for those who’ve lost loved ones to a drug overdose as they hung photos and purple ribbons along River Valley Road. (John Shypitka/CBC)

The group chose that location because it’s near Victoria Park where commemorations will be held on Aug. 31 to mark Overdose Awareness Day, including having the High Level Bridge lit up in purple. 

“It’s very important to us to have a day to come together where we can grieve together and feel understood,” said Dea.

Those wishing to mark Overdose Awareness Month can wear a purple ribbon or tie one to their property.

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