By Nicole McCormick
In March of 2016, less than a month after learning that the deadly opioid fentanyl had begun wreaking havoc in the streets of Surrey BC, Surrey Now reporter Amy Reid watched as one of her sources almost died in front of her. Jeff, a man she had interviewed three weeks prior, was blue and lifeless as panic stricken shelter staff used the overdose reversing drug Narcan to revive him.
“It was a really scary story,” she said. “I don’t think you can really understand unless you see it.”
Drug addiction and overdoses have long been a major issue in the Vancouver suburb, but things took a much deadlier turn in 2016 when fentanyl became more prevalent in the streets of Surrey. In fact, the city is only second to Vancouver in terms of fentanyl related deaths in British Columbia with around 37 overdoses occurring each month in 2016 and 108 total deaths for the entire year.
As a reporter for the Now for six years, Reid has consistently written about drug addiction and homelessness, but even she was shocked at the massive impact fentanyl had on the community.
“It’s very different out there,” she said. “When you walk down 135A Street, where a lot of the drug activity goes on, you hear, ‘Narcan!’ They scream Narcan when anybody goes down from an overdose.” This wasn’t the case when Reid first started reporting. “This many people were not dying,” she said. “It’s killing so many more people than anything else.”
Despite the massive devastation being caused, it was only early on in 2016 that Reid had first learned about fentanyl and began reporting on the opioid crisis. She had been informed by some of her regular sources about a heightened occurrence of drug overdoses in the Surrey area. It was so bad, in fact, that 16 people had already died of drug overdoses in Surrey within the first two months of 2016.
“They’re used to working on the front lines, but even for them, things were getting so bad,” said Reid, speaking about workers at the local homeless shelters. “It came to me because my sources identified this problem before the government even did.”
In response, Reid decided to tell the stories of the people in the community impacted by addiction through a three-part series titled “Narcan on Heaven’s Door,” that was published over a two week period between March and April of 2016.
She spent nearly a month on the reporting end, spending time at homeless shelters and carrying out numerous interviews, with everyone she could including shelter staff, addicts, firefighters, harm reduction officers, doctors and even mothers whose children have died of overdoses.
“I really had to embed myself in that world in order to be able to tell the stories of the people that are struggling with this and the overdosing that are daily sometimes,” said Reid. “It was probably the longest I’ve prepared [for a story] and the most amount of research and interviews prior to running it.”
The first instalment, published on March 26, 2016, Reid had always intended to focus on Jeff, who she had interviewed towards the beginning of the reporting process. Then, just before the story went to press, he overdosed in front of her.
An emotional Reid decided to completely re-work it using the traumatic experience to introduce and tell the first chapter of the story. “We decided to go first person with that because we thought it would be a little more impactful for our readers,” she said.
“It’s one thing to hear, I think it was, ‘914 people ended up dying last year of an illicit drug overdose,’ but it’s another thing to sort of put people in the moment where you’re watching somebody maybe die,” she said. “I really wanted to get that across because, I would never call myself an advocate, I’m a reporter, but I am here to tell the story of people who don’t have a voice of their own.”
By the time parts two and three of the series were published by the Now in April 2016, the issue had spiraled into a full blown provincial crisis forcing the government to take note. “Three weeks after we ended our series, it was declared a public health emergency by the province,” said Reid.
But even as the government officially acknowledged the crisis, fentanyl abuse and overdoses continued to occur regularly in Surrey. By the end of the year, and continuing into early 2017, Reid was no longer interviewing those who had stumbled upon fentanyl by chance when their drug of choice was laced with the deadly opioid. In fact, one of her latest stories on the crisis published in January of this year, profiled a recovering fentanyl addict rather than a heroin addict like Jeff.
“He didn’t describe himself as a heroin addict, he described himself as a fentanyl addict,” she said. “He sought out fentanyl. For me to learn that people are actually seeking out fentanyl, that was shocking to me. Even as somebody who reports in this realm a lot. Like, heroin was shocking enough to me, that people would seek that out and do that and that that addiction had that hold on them.”
Although the subject of her recent feature was able to get help and overcome his addiction, Reid has no idea if Jeff had a similar fate or if he succumbed to his addiction.
“Who knows if he’s alive today,” she said. “I don’t know if he’s alive anymore because that’s what this drug does. It’s so so harmful and the chances of dying are so so high.”
“I think that to me is why I’m so passionate in writing about it, because so many people are dying.”
It would seem that many others in the community feel the same way, as Reid says she has received mostly positive feedback on her reporting. She has even been nominated for the Ma Murray Community Newspaper award for “Narcan on Heaven’s Door.” The award is given out annually by the British Columbia and Yukon Community Newspaper Association and will be announced on April 29.
“I’ve had a lot of feedback from even city councillors in our community. Everyone from the homeless people themselves right up to the politicians. But I really try to just make people think about the situation a little bit more,” she said. “I try to go farther than just reporting the news. I try to actually tell the stories of these people.”
However, with such a stigma still surrounding drug addiction, not everyone shares the same views on the issue.
“Everybody’s entitled to their opinion and a lot of people in the community don’t have empathy or sympathy for their situation,” said Reid.
“I think with the debate continuing is what’s going to help. Whether, you’re on one side or the other, I think continuing the conversation is what’s important.”
Nicole McCormick is doing her field placement with CBC’s special investigative unit in Toronto. She will graduate from Algonquin College’s journalism program in the spring.