Judith Conway travelled from her home on Vancouver Island, across the world, to visit his Holiness Pope Francis in March and receive a blessing on a carefully folded series of flags and ribbons.
On each flag and ribbon is a name, and along with them are 4,000 strands of yarn which each represent someone who died of an opioid overdose in Canada.
One of the flags honours Conway’s own son, Matthew Yvon Conway, who was 29 when he died back in November 2017. He is one of more than 3,200 British Columbians who have died from illicit drugs in the past two years.
Since Pope Francis blessed the project, Conway has been on a mission to carry it forward and spread awareness about the need for change, but she’s been having trouble finding a place to hang the display in Victoria.
Conway has a static version of the project along her home’s fence in Comox and has the blessed version moving around the area. On April 25 the display was in the Christ Church Cathedral in Victoria for an inclusive memorial for those lost through overdoses, and in May it will be on display at the Courtenay Airpark.
But Conway is hoping it will get a longer display in the Greater Victoria area where her children grew up.
The City of Victoria approved the display at the beginning of December, but at this point have not found a suitable spot for the project, which unfolds to be over 100 feet long.
Having the flags and ribbons out is important, Conway said, because it gets people talking.
“I’ve had mothers come up to me after seeing the flags and tell me that they’ve never told anyone how their child died,” Conway said. “This is all part of the stigma of drugs… People go through these huge losses and they can’t talk about it because of the shame of society.”
Conway was aware of the opioid crisis before her son’s death, but has learned much more since then.
“I was a mother who sought support and everything else,” Conway said, “I was told the same as usual: they have to hit rock bottom… I believe now that the old teachings of AA [Alcoholics Anonymous], which has been a powerful tool for many people, is different than what’s needed now. This is not rock bottom. Rock bottom is death.”
Conway said Matthew was a hardworking, handsome and productive man, and kept up his job until the day he died. He had never had on overdose before.
Matthew became addicted to opioids after enduring a bad accident. He went through rehab, and worked with doctors and therapists to stay sober. He practiced abstinence – refraining from alcohol and narcotics, a move that Conway said isolated him from many of his friends.
The knell for Matthew came from a doctor’s pen.
“I found out from the coroner’s report that Matthew had gone to the hospital for an infection, and that he was prescribed narcotics,” Conway said. Shortly after, Matthew’s renewed dependence lead to an overdose.
Conway said that before Matthew’s death she believed abstinence was the way to go, but now understands that it doesn’t work.
“I have no idea what works. If I knew, my son would still be alive,” Conway said. “I’m willing to look at anything that will work and maybe part of that would be decriminalization of drugs.”
Matthew’s death, and the death of thousands of others are preventable, and can be stopped when a community comes together and show support for one another, Conway said.
“I believe our society has really lost a sense of community, and everyone feels alone. In the old days it took a village to raise a child. Now, I think it takes a village to solve this.”
Preventative movements are happening across B.C., including the establishment of overdose prevention units and calls for safer access to opioid alternatives from municipalities and public health officers.
In April, Black Press Media also launched a comprehensive Overdose Prevention Guide and printed 15,000 copies that were sent to doctor’s offices, social service agencies, seniors centres, and free magazine stands across the Capital Region.
Still, Conway said more action is required.
“I think every bit helps. The more that we talk, the more that we try and break down the stigma, I think all of this will help,” Conway said. “An ounce of prevention saves a lot of money and a lot of lives.”
Conway hopes her project will eventually find a place in a Victoria park, where many people can see it.
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