“There’s no way to describe the enormous shock a parent experiences when you get a phone call informing you … You lose your ability to stand, and you sink into the closest chair. Your heart stops and you just can’t believe it. This terrible wave of shock goes through your entire body.”
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip took that terrible call last August from his wife, Joan. She was nearly hysterical.
“The minute I heard her, I thought, ‘Oh, no. Oh, no.’ She kept saying over and over, ‘He’s gone. He’s gone.’”
It was Aug. 7, 2018, the day after Kenny Phillip’s 42nd birthday. Their oldest son had died alone in a hotel room of a carfentanil overdose in Grand Prairie, Alta.
“I don’t think he knew that he had taken carfentanil,” his father told me. “But nobody was more well-versed in addictions and the variety of drugs available than he was.
“Having gone through so many treatment programs, he had high level of expertise. He knew everything about his addictions, the pattern and so forth. Yet he still was vulnerable to the powerful call of the addiction.”
Kenny struggled with addiction to drugs and alcohol since he was a teenager, and had been to at least half a dozen treatment programs. Still, his father said, “You’re never ready for that phone call.”
His son followed the usual cycle. Bouts of drug and alcohol use punctuated by detox, treatment and periods of recovery. His longest recovery period lasted nearly three years. But this time, his parents were optimistic that it was different.
He had graduated from the Round Lake Treatment Centre. He was working as an apprentice mechanic. He loved it. He had been obsessed with cars since he was a kid. One of the people who worked with him in Penticton described Kenny to me as “a helluva guy.”
After he died, a former co-worker designed a logo with two crossed wrenches, Kenny’s initials with the years 1976 and 2018, and had decals made up so that his friends could honour him by sticking them on their toolboxes.
Phillip says something happened when Kenny went up to northwestern Alberta, triggering his addiction. And given Grande Prairie’s reputation as a crossroads for drugs, he wouldn’t have had to go far to find them.
Northwest of Edmonton, Grande Prairie has had several recent large drug busts. In January, RCMP seized four kilos of crystal methamphetamine, 2.2 kilos of cocaine, 200 grams of heroin, about 5,500 oxycodone tablets and about 950 fentanyl tablets.
A few months earlier, guns, ammunition as well as meth, cocaine, heroin and magic mushrooms were seized in a follow-up to a July raid.
“I have first-hand knowledge,” Phillip said. “I started drinking when I was 15, and was 40-something when I sobered up. It was the hardest thing that I ever did, and I was an alcoholic not strung out on crystal meth and some of the street drugs.
“But I know that at the end of the day, it’s up to the person. The individual.”
Seven years into marriage with, at the time, three children — two daughters and Kenny — Phillip’s wife told him she was finished with the fighting, picking him up when he was drunk, and buying liquor for him. But if he wanted to carry on, he was free to go.
“I thought, ‘Free at last,’” Phillip recalled. “I lasted a month. I was downtown drinking with all my so-called buddies talking about my newfound freedom. One evening in a Chinese restaurant — nobody else was there — I put in an order and was staring at the tabletop. I just broke down. I started crying and then howling.
“The howling was coming from the soul. I was scared stiff.”
At that moment, he realized his stark choice.
“If kept going, I was going to die at my own hand. But to contemplate stopping … which at the time was like contemplating to stop breathing or stop eating because it was such an integral part of who I was.”
What had kept Phillip from suicide, he told the Georgia Strait in May 2018, was the thought of his son. “I thought he would have to grow up with that stigma.”
With the help of Joan and Emery Gabriel, a drug and alcohol counsellor and the only sober friend Phillip had, he got into treatment at the Nechako Centre and has never relapsed.
Every day, Phillip thanks the Creator for sobriety because abstinence has enabled him to take on the work he has done and continues to do as president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, grand chief of the Okanagan Nation, and as a board member for Round Lake Treatment Centre.
Phillip grieves for the “incredible, amazing young man who touched so many different lives” and for the choice Kenny made last August, knowing full well the risk he was taking in the midst of the opioid overdose crisis.
He speaks openly, and urges others to as well, because those who have died need champions to bring about change.
“I want my son’s death to be meaningful,” Phillip said. “The path forward has to be an abundance of resources to help those who are struggling with addictions. … More treatment centres, more programs, and a greater commitment from governments and society to pick up the responsibility for it.”
So far, governmental response has been “minimalist,” said Phillip.
“This notion of harm reduction is just kicking the issue down the road. It’s not dealing with getting people from an addictive state to where they are clean and sober. That’s what we need to do.”
As for cannabis legalization, Phillip said, “I just shake my head when I think of where we are at and the direction we are going.”
As she bounces nine-month-old Delilah on her knee, Amber Hawse pauses reflectively before answering a question about what she thinks she and her baby will be doing in five years.
Hawse, 20, hopes by then to have graduated from college and to have a job as a special-needs support worker. Delilah will be in kindergarten. And they will live together in their own place with enough money for food, basic expenses and peace of mind.
Her goals may seem modest, but the reality is that 20 per cent of children in B.C. live in poverty and their families struggle to provide the necessities of life, especially in Metro Vancouver with its sky-high cost of living.
Hawse knows this well, as a foster child who lurched from home to home, some of them abusive. At age 16, she was living on her own in an apartment run by a social service agency, learning to budget her meagre government payments while attending high school.
The well-spoken, thoughtful young woman hopes Delilah will not be trapped in a similar cycle. She wants to provide her daughter with financial and emotional stability — which starts with them remaining together.
“I grew up with no dad and no mom, so I don’t want to let her grow up with (being) in care and getting her abused. I want her to know she is always loved,” Hawse said, fighting back tears.
Poverty and other challenges facing youth, particularly in Metro Vancouver’s inner cities, were the focus of a recent brainstorming session during which dozens of service agencies and community members came together to discuss the root causes and possible solutions to these often multi-generational crises.
“People can easily become immune to seeing homeless people on the streets, but the poverty that children face is often hidden from us,” said Jennifer Johnstone, president of Central City Foundation, which organized the Hope Dialogue Series session. “And that makes (the depth of) child poverty a surprise to people sometimes.”
The Downtown Eastside has become the focal point, with many drawn there by its plethora of low-rent buildings and free food services. But poverty exists in many other pockets of Metro Vancouver, and affects the children of struggling parents as well as children without parents.
172,550 poor kids in B.C.
The statistics, say Central City, are stark:
• One in five of all B.C. children — 172,550 kids — lives in poverty, and that jumps to one in three for off-reserve Indigenous children.
• Nearly half of recent child immigrants are impoverished.
• Half of children in poverty are raised by single parents, mostly by mothers.
• Youth aging out of foster care are 200 times more likely to become homeless before the age of 25.
And research shows that disadvantaged children can be delayed mentally and physically due to a lack of nutrition, are more likely to struggle in school and end up unemployed, and are more prone to suffer from addictions and mental illness.
The trend is improving, though, as a quarter of all B.C. youth were impoverished a decade ago, compared to 20 per cent now, according to First Call’s annual Child Poverty Report Card. B.C.’s child poverty rate has been higher than the Canadian average for at least two decades, although that gap is narrowing.
Some of B.C.’s recent improvements can be credited to the new Child Tax Benefit introduced by Ottawa in 2016, and also promising are recent commitments by provincial and federal governments to adopt poverty-reduction plans, increase affordable housing, boost the minimum wage and introduce affordable daycare.
But there is more work to do to try to overcome the systemic marginalization that has led to this poverty — such as colonialism and residential schools that have brought a disproportionate number of Indigenous people into the Downtown Eastside, Johnstone said.
The October brainstorming session, which included groups such as the Urban Native Youth Association and the Aboriginal Mother Centre, was just the beginning of a very important conversation, she added.
“When we come together and see possibilities, that is the hope for change,” Johnstone said. “The children are the stewards of our future.”
Schools are more than education
Schools increasingly provide more than education to impoverished youth, especially in inner cities. But during long school breaks, at-risk children can be left without enough food, fun activities or emotional support to keep them safe during the day while their parents are working.
To bridge this gap, a unique organization called KidSafe runs full-day camps during Christmas holidays, March break and the summer at six east Vancouver schools, so 450 vulnerable children have a safe place to go each day for three healthy meals, fun activities and continued access to important services.
“The (camps) provide continuity for things like nutrition, healthy adult relationships, just somebody having eyes on a child,” said KidSafe executive director Quincey Kirschner, who attended the Hope Dialogue session.
“The demand is ever-increasing, and it is so awful to not have enough resources to be able to provide service to all the kids and families who need it.”
Poverty is one of the reasons some children are referred by teachers and others to KidSafe, but there are other factors as well, such as emotional vulnerability, she added.
For six years, Krista Ericson has relied on the three seasonal camps to help with her four children, who are in Grades 1 through 6 at Grandview/¿uuqinak’uuh Elementary in east Vancouver. The camps provide much-needed respite for the single mother, who fostered and then adopted the four Indigenous siblings who have a range of diagnoses that include fetal alcohol syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
“The support during the (school) breaks is life-saving to me,” said Ericson, who added it is difficult to keep the active, high-needs children at home all day. “To think of trying to find out-of-school care for four children, I couldn’t afford it. I couldn’t afford full-time camps in the summer.”
She does not work outside the home, mainly because her days are consumed with hospital appointments and other commitments for the children.
Ericson lives in subsidized housing, shops for food that is on sale and in bulk, and is grateful for a myriad of programs — ranging from Backpack Buddies, which provides food to families for the weekends, to charity hampers and donated gifts at Christmas — that help her make ends meet.
When her children see other people with cellphones or trendy clothing, Ericson has her oft-repeated line: “I tell my kids, ‘That’s their family, and we do it differently in our family.’” She also uses the opportunity to teach her children that, although they live a modest life, they are better off than other students who don’t have enough food to eat or a safe place to sleep at night.
One of her top priorities is to include a lot of Indigenous culture in their home lives.
Indigenous culture creates ‘doorway into wellness’
After the brainstorming session in October, Central City compiled a summary of what they heard from the 100 people in attendance, and found that programs with cultural components, such as connections with elders and Indigenous languages, have been successful because they create “a doorway into wellness and community building.”
Other initiatives that are making a positive difference, the attendees said, were those that connect youth with relatives and meaningful people in their lives, as well as programs in which non-profits and service agencies work together to provide more comprehensive support to children.
The Central City summary also determined what isn’t working: Governments too often fund programs that treat problems once they start, rather than preventing them; a lack of affordable housing can lead to poverty and families losing their children; and there isn’t enough transition planning for youth aging out of care, who experience disproportionately high levels of mental illness, substance use and unemployment.
Aunt Leah’s Place, a New Westminster charity, has been helping children who age out of care for three decades, but 10 years ago it added a new element: soliciting financial support from foundations, corporations, governments and others to obtain specialized housing.
“That was done based on trends we saw around more and more young people who are aging out becoming homeless,” said president and CEO Sarah Stewart. “What we didn’t plan for is the opioid crisis — that’s been a double whammy for these young people. … They are dealing with daily grief connected to people they know who have died.”
Aunt Leah’s provided services to 345 youth last year — 41 foster children under age 19, 208 who had aged out, and 96 of their babies and children.
“The reality for youth aging out of foster care today is a lot of hardship,” said Stewart, who also attended the Hope Dialogue session.
There has been positive change in the last few years, such as free tuition and financial support for foster children to attend post-secondary schools. The provincial government has also expanded a program that will fund more life-skills training for these youth.
But, Stewart said, more subsidized housing is needed, along with better co-ordination between government agencies — such as education, health and child welfare — to look out for this population.
‘Just do what parents do’
The key to supporting youth coming out of care is simple, she argues — just do what parents do.
“Aunt Leah’s tries to replicate what families are doing for their kids,” Stewart said. “Parents are providing tuition, transportation, food, housing well into their 20s, so that is what we are doing. And that is what government should be doing.”
Hawse, though, was cast adrift. After being asked to leave her last foster home, the then-16-year-old moved into an apartment run by Aunt Leah’s, where teenage foster children live on their own but have access to support and training programs.
“For the first couple of nights that I was by myself, I cried because I wasn’t used to being in a house alone,” she said. “It’s very lonely.”
She received government funding of $70 a week for groceries, and learned to buy food on sale and collect grocery store points to get items for free. She also worked part-time while completing high school — a remarkable accomplishment, as less than half of foster children in B.C. graduate from Grade 12.
When she turned 19, Hawse was newly pregnant but had to leave her Aunt Leah’s apartment funded specifically for foster kids. She moved into emergency housing for several months before Aunt Leah’s could offer her a room in a building for new mothers.
She is getting by, for now, able to buy food, diapers and other necessities with the employment insurance and federal child tax she is collecting while off work with her baby. She hopes to return to her job at a local daycare, and to attend college next year to become a community and classroom support worker.
“I’ve been through a lot,” Hawse says. “But there is light at the end of the tunnel.”
Some solutions for the future
Central City’s Johnstone says there are reasons to be optimistic. For example, her organization, which is a major sponsor of Aunt Leah’s, is also backing a unique new youth initiative in Surrey that will have a school program and government social workers located in the same place as a sort of one-stop shop for vulnerable kids.
And there are other organizations, such as Vancouver Native Health, launching innovative programs in the Downtown Eastside designed to keep families together, she said.
The summary from the brainstorming session came up with some solutions to work toward, although nearly everyone interviewed for this story admits there is no obvious quick fix to the deep-rooted problem of child poverty.
The goals for the agencies include expanding programs to support the family as a whole, not just the child alone; enlisting graduates of youth programs to return as mentors; and creating more hubs where multiple services can be offered in one place to at-risk families.
At Family Services of Greater Vancouver, many clients in the family preservation program are parents trying to keep their kids after the children’s ministry documented some type of child protection concern. Staff help them with a myriad of things, ranging from housing, daycare and community resources, to help with trauma, domestic violence or addictions.
“For many of our families, poverty is an issue and that becomes a barrier for everything. They don’t have money for housing, food or your basic needs,” said Susan Walker, a family preservation manager, adding that stress affects everything from going to school to having a healthy family relationship. “Poverty stops people from moving forward.”
The agency, which also attended the Hope Dialogue session, has joined with others to advocate for major changes. Karen Dickenson Smith, director of specialized family supports, said these include embedding support workers into more “creative” types of housing, larger subsidized homes to allow extended families to live together, better compensation for foster parents, and higher wages in the social services sector to reduce turnover and ensure continuity of care for youth.
“System change takes time. We’ve seen some really encouraging developments, but we are a ways off and there is a lot of work to do,” said Dickenson Smith.
Added her colleague, Walker: “Poverty is not going to end overnight, but if you have subsidized housing and people are given the opportunity to get the work they need to do in life to get a job, that can allow children stability.”
Christie Garofalo and Bruce Munro Wright chaired the 36th annual Splash gala and auction that reportedly netted $560,000 for the Arts Umbrella fine-and-performing-arts organization for young folk. Malcolm Parry / PNG
GRACE RELATIONS: Michael Bublé came from his new Burnaby home to perform at the B.C. Women’s Hospital Foundation’s Glow gala. Chaired by Sonia Sayani, Heidi Seidman and Shanaz Lalji, the event reportedly raised $2.4 million. That should more than fund 10 new birthing suites (the hospital has 17 now) at $175,000 each. The foundation’s two year president-CEO, Genesa Greening, welcomed Bublé, and could have joined his act if asked.
As the daughter of Salvation Army ministers, she sang gospel songs and belted out blues in her native Newfoundland. She certainly doesn’t sing the blues today as the foundation prepares to launch a $20-million capital campaign toward a specialized health centre for gynecological surgery and outpatient service. Greening shares a background with B.C. Women’s; it operated for 67 years as the Salvation Army’s Grace Hospital before adopting its present title in 1994.
IN TERRY’S STEPS: Cancer’s indiscriminate ways were evident when the 16th annual A Night To Dream gala reportedly raised $480,000 for Ronald McDonald House. Waiting for the start, 12-year-old Olivia Ady’s hairless head and hip-to-calf scar were evidence of chemotherapy and surgery for osteosarcoma. Close by, twin sister Isabella practised light-as-air jive moves with father Geoff while mother Bridgette smiled approvingly. Treatment for the ailment has greatly advanced since it felled Terry Fox in 1981. Four out of five patients now survive, and, though further treatment is scheduled, the Trail-resident Adys believe that Olivia’s cancer is 98 per cent behind her. They’re also thankful for Bridgette and Olivia’s eight-month occupancy of a Ronald McDonald House suite, one of 73 that serve 2,000 families annually. Good news for gala chair Lindsey Turner and CEO Richard Pass who said the house’s role on the B.C. Children’s Hospital campus is “to keep families close when it matters.”
BONE-YARD BIKE: Echoing the pioneering 1850s bicycles called boneshakers, Yolanda Mason made a modern version composed entirely of bones, even its spokes and chain. Too short for even circus clowns at 25 cm, it was Dawson Creek-born Mason’s entry in Bombay Sapphire gin’s recent international art contest at Gallery Jones. Paul Morstad’s watercolour titled Drag Race promoted him to the tourney’s next heat. Still, Mason’s bone bike was as refreshing as the Bombay-based Van Gold cocktail she quaffed.
OUT OF THE RAIN: The Arts Umbrella fine-and-performing-arts organization for young folk was four years old in 1983 when its first Splash fundraiser ran. The ripples spread, and repeat chairs Christie Garofalo and Bruce Munro Wright saw the recent event reportedly net $560,000 from close to 700 attendees. Auctioneer Hank Bull briskly moved 37 donated artworks. Days earlier, he raised $55,000 from 25 works to help build an arts centre on Hornby Island. Former Splash galas merited their name when wind and rain penetrated a tented Granville Island locale. No such contretemps affected the recent one in the Hotel Vancouver’s Pacific Ballroom. However, wine that was splashed out liberally during the auction may have augmented the bidding. For the edification of buyers, the following artists fetched prices half or more higher than their catalogue estimates. Henri Dauman, 192 per cent. Christos Dikeakos, 189 per cent. Federico Mendez-Castro, 165 per cent. Brian Howell, 164 per cent. Judson Beaumont, 160 per cent. Valerie Raynard, 153 per cent. Douglas Coupland, 150 per cent. Happy collecting.
DROP ’EM: It can be difficult when two women arrive at an event wearing the same dress. Less so when a woman and man visibly sport identical underwear. That happened when Angus Reid Institute executive director Shachi Kurl and TV chappie Mike Killeen turned up in smiley-face boxers at the second-annual Pants Off gala. The event had participants doff their trousers and suchlike to benefit Prostate Cancer Canada. That pleased Canadian Cancer Society board member Kurl. Ditto eminent surgeon-researcher Martin Gleave who, though attired in visible underpants like other attendees, is accustomed to seeing men without them.
RAISE ’EM: Somewhat like city council, Diane Forsythe Abbott’s vision isn’t what it was. There’s nothing wrong with her hearing, though, especially when Jane McLennan offered to donate $25,000 to a luncheon that Abbott founded in 1996. The annual event has always raised funds for the YWCA’s Crabtree Corner, a Downtown Eastside facility for marginalized families. McLennan later raised her gift to $1 million, which should cheer those at the Dec. 5 lunch in the Encore restaurant’s upstairs room. Happier still may be Crabtree Corner’s ever-needy clients.
GROOMING OTHERS: Joseph Fung, who pitched himself to Michelle Tam before their spectacular 2014 wedding here, is now judging 100 other determined hopefuls. Not for marriage, though. According to the South China Morning Post, Fung, the Saltagen Ventures managing partner, will rule on contestants in the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation’s US$120,000 Elevator Pitch Competition. It will “connect entrepreneurial minds from not only Hong Kong but increasingly from across the world with investors.”
DOWN PARRYSCOPE: A city’s decade: Happy Planet to unhappy streets.
The B.C. government has announced anti-poverty targets. Getty Images
Roughly 50,000 fewer B.C. children will be living in poverty by 2024 if the provincial government meets its new targets to cut child poverty in half and overall poverty by a quarter.
The NDP campaigned in the spring of 2017 on a promise to establish a poverty reduction plan for B.C., the only province without one. But residents will have to wait until March 2019 — two years later — for the unveiling of the plan, and to find out how the targeted reductions will be achieved and how much they will cost.
“I accept and I respect the criticism (about delays), but I would rather take a few more months and get this right. And the reality is we didn’t create this problem overnight, so we’re not going to fix it overnight,” Shane Simpson, minister of social development and poverty reduction, said.
“We have at this point the second-highest rate of poverty overall and the highest rate of poverty for children (in Canada).” About one in five B.C. children live in poverty.
If achieved, the new targets will improve B.C.’s ranking, he said.
Legislation proposed on Tuesday offers few details beyond targets to reduce B.C.’s population of people in poverty — estimated at 557,000 residents — by one quarter by 2024. That would require lifting 140,000 people above the poverty line, including half of the 100,000 children who are impoverished.
Trish Garner, of the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition, said it is a “good first step” to have targets and timelines after years of no action by the previous government.
“We would have liked to have seen a stronger overall poverty reduction target, and faster,” said Garner, a member of an advisory forum that provides advice to the minister. “Although, the target around child poverty is bold.”
First Call’s Adrienne Montani agreed, as her organization has advocated cutting child poverty in half since 2009.
Both women provided a wish list of what measures they thought should be financed in February’s budget and included in March’s plan in order to achieve the government’s targets.
Those include more-accessible child care, better wages, reduction of fees, improved access to jobs and more affordable housing through such things as rent controls.
Garner believes there are several things missing from the new legislation, such as any mention of the “depths” of poverty, which refers to how far someone is below the poverty line. She would have liked to see a commitment to increase the incomes of all poor people to within 75 per cent of the poverty line in the next two years, which she said could mainly be achieved by boosting welfare and disability rates.
Montani also hopes the province will consider enhancing the three-year-old early childhood tax benefit, so the payments are larger and continue longer — as is the case in other provinces. She noted the federal child benefit, which provides money monthly to needy families, has successfully reduced poverty nationally.
Asked when the other 50 per cent of B.C. children could be lifted out of poverty, if the first half is helped by 2024, Montani said she is cautiously optimistic that most of the solutions being discussed will help all kids in poor households.
“I am somewhat hopeful that maybe we can exceed that target,” she said.
Simpson said improvement to the early childhood benefit tax is one of things being investigated, although he made no specific commitment.
Funding this poverty reduction plan will require “significant” spending in the next five provincial budgets, but Simpson would not estimate the overall cost. He said it will include portions of NDP programs, totalling well over $1 billion, that have already been announced, such as the affordable child care plan; new housing and rent subsidy programs; increasing the minimum wage; raising social assistance and disability benefits; and ending tuition for adult basic education and English-language learning.
New measures will also be required, among them how to reduce costs of housing, food and transportation for needy people. Another necessity is jobs, said Simpson, who has met with business groups about trying to get people with mild disabilities into the workforce.
Of the 557,000 people living in poverty, about 200,000 receive welfare, disability or other services from Simpson’s ministry. The rest include seniors, the working poor, and young people aging out of foster care. That means other ministries must be involved in the poverty reduction plan, he said.
The new legislation requires government to report annually on its progress, and it will be monitored by an advisory panel.
“We’re confident that while those targets are bold, we have the capacity to meet those targets as well as to build the opportunity to break the cycle of poverty moving forward,” Simpson said.
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