Victims of opioid crisis organize awareness walk

Elisa Nguyen
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
enguyen@fortfrances.com

Chelsea Blackjack is just one member in a growing list of people who have lost a loved one to drug overdose. She knows all too well the growing frustration across the community, as lives are lost and families broken due to the opioid crisis, and she has decided to take a stand.

Blackjack is one of the organizers of an Overdose Awareness Walk, to be held on August 31 to commemorate her brother, the late Chauncey Grover III, and many others who have lost their lives to drug overdose.

Blackjack is a mother of five and recently completed her studies at the Seven Generation Education Institute. Her focus on mental health and addictions began when she wanted to better understand why her older brother Chauncey struggled with addictions. “We’ve had a very traumatic life, being Indigenous,” Blackjack said. “There’s intergenerational trauma that happened within our family.”

Chauncey tragically went missing and died in 2020. Following the missing report released on January 15 of that year, police, helicopters, canine units and volunteers scoured the forests between Couchiching First Nation and Fort Frances in search of the beloved father and friend. For three months while Chauncey’s family waited for answers, Blackjack stated that she felt judgment and a lack of support because Chauncey was stigmatized as a drug addict.

“To lose my brother to overdose was really hard for me. He was buried under the snow for three months and we didn’t find him. And in our search for him, I would hear stuff like, ‘oh, he was just an addict,’ ‘like youth on a binge, he’ll come home soon.’”

On April 8, near the community of Couchiching First Nation, North West Region’s Emergency Response Team and other search units located human remains later identified as Chauncey Grover. The family, including his three children whom Chauncey loved dearly, experienced a grief that would change their lives forever.

Chauncey had been on the path toward recovery, but when his children were taken away, he spiraled back into addiction. “His kids were literally his life. He was a dad. He really wanted to get them back. He was working towards it.” Blackjack and Chauncey were only one year apart in age, making them very close growing up. “He was my best friend. It’s how I would put it.”

Blackjack has been planning the upcoming Awareness Walk since she found out about her brother’s overdose.

The message is clear: The number of lives lost to drug overdose increases at frightening rates in northwest regions, yet resources for support and treatment are scarce. Further discourse on harm reduction strategies is urgently needed. “I never hear people really talking about overdose,” Blackjack stated. “When they do, they shove it under the rug.”

An example of a harm reduction strategy includes supervised consumption sites, which enables individuals with addictions to access healthcare and social assistance while safely using substances. In a monitored and clean environment, overdose can be prevented, along with other blood borne diseases. Feasibility studies are underway to determine the need for supervised consumption sites in the northwest.

Blackjack acknowledges the controversy surrounding harm reduction strategies, but firmly expresses her support for them, reminding us that areas such as the northwest have the greatest need for help, yet the fewest resources available. Morningstar Detox Centre is one of the closest detox centers to Couchiching First Nation communities. It is almost a three hour drive via the Trans-Canada highway.

Indigenous populations suffer judgment for addictions exacerbated from intergenerational trauma from residential schools and the reserve system enacted by the Canadian government. Sometimes, another life will be taken to drug overdose, but the important conversations will be avoided. “There was a community nearby that just had two losses,” Blackjack said. “I’m positive it was an overdose. That was within the past week. Two losses. It’s very stigmatized here and really needs to be addressed.”

“When you have family members who suffer from addiction, it is really helpful talking with people who are going through the same thing.” After the loss of her brother, Blackjack received mental and emotional support from her instructors. Openly discussing how she was feeling, even amongst her classmates, helped her process and heal. One day, she hopes to work directly with individuals suffering from addictions.

For help organizing the Awareness Walk, Blackjack reached out to Les Morrisseau, Mental Health & Addictions Worker; Debbie Fairbanks, Youth/Mental Health Worker; and Kourtney Perrault, the Family Well Being Coordinator in Couchiching.

The Overdose Awareness Walk will begin at 10 a.m. at the Couchiching First Nation Multiuse Center. It will be a full-day event including an honour song in memory of Chauncey and others who struggled with addictions, a wide range of guest speakers from addiction survivors to OPP who will talk about the situation in Fort Frances. Blackjack will speak about her experience with her brother. At the end of the event, NARCAN kits, a potentially life saving medication for opioid overdoses, will be distributed.

These events are in conjunction with International Overdose Awareness Day. Attendees are welcomed to wear purple and to bring a photo of a loved one who was lost to overdose.

For more information, contact Chelsey Blackjack at cblackjack90@gmail.com, or visit the Facebook event page for important updates, found at Overdose Awareness Walk In Memory Of Chauncey Grover III.