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Black Friday: The day that changed policing in Canada

That terrible day saw one officer lose his life, and left seven others wounded.

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On the morning of Dec. 18, 1974, convicted rapist and drug addict Phillipe Laurier Gagnon quit his job at Pinecrest Foods in Calgary’s northeast and went to the garage he called home. Two days later — after sniffing more than 35 tubes of model airplane glue — the ex-con armed himself with a pair of rifles and sparked the biggest gun battle in Calgary’s modern history. When the smoke from more than 1,000 bullets and gas canisters cleared, one cop was dead, several officers were badly wounded and Gagnon was face up on the ground, his lifeless eyes staring into the winter afternoon sky.

“There was no way he was going to get out of there alive,” recalled one of the 130 cops who were at the scene. “Even if he came out with his hands up, it was too late for him.”

Forever known as “Black Friday,” it was the sobering day Calgary police and cops from around the country were blasted into the modern world of urban warfare.

Phillipe Gagnon was a loser. It was a fact the 26-year-old accepted and even immortalized on his body. In tattooist’s ink across his belly in bold words: Born to Lose, But Out to Win.

Born in 1948, Gagnon grew up on a farm outside Edmonton, but had little contact with his family after he grew out of his teens. A drifter and a loner, he quit school long before graduation because, as he later told a prison shrink, he loathed authority.

Gagnon’s first real brush with the bad side of the law came when he was busted for causing a disturbance at age 20.

A scant three years later, Gagnon graduated to the ranks of the serious criminals and joined them in a federal pen when he received a three-year sentence for two counts of rape and one count of common assault. It was there a prison psychologist described Gagnon as having “resentative (sic) hostilities” towards all officials and as a “possible sociopath.”

Despite those qualities that would normally hold a con in good stead with other prisoners, life behind bars wasn’t easy for the convicted sex offender — it rarely is for rapists, those disdainfully dubbed as ”skinners” by other inmates. In the strange prisoner hierarchy, skinners are the lowest of the low, jailbirds hardly worth the saliva it takes to spit at them.

Gagnon felt the heaviness of that mantle when his weight dropped drastically in Alberta’s federal Drumheller pen. The reason was brutally simple: his life was threatened in the prison kitchen and he never ventured back for meals.

He was nothing but “skin and bones,” said Otto Sautter of the John Howard Society.

“Having no friends, nobody would bring any food back to him,” he said in a 1975 interview with an inquiry board.

Life wasn’t much better for Gagnon outside the joint when he was released on June 23, 1974. Going from job to job, co-workers repeatedly and stereotypically described the killer-to-be as a quiet man, something of a loner. Gagnon was often seen sitting alone during breaks, laughing and giggling at some unheard joke.

Fast-forward to Dec. 20, 1974, when an obviously deranged Gagnon, foaming at the mouth, walked into the Ideal Grocery store at 1048 8 St. S.E. and attempted to buy six tubes of Testor’s model airplane glue. During the two previous days, Gagnon purchased more than 35 tubes of the same adhesive and Ideal’s owner, Rose Demelanaere, refused to sell him any more. She called the cops when Gagnon became aggressive.

Const. Harvey Gregorash was at the scene an hour later, just in time to spot a red-nosed Gagnon walking the street on unsteady legs. Gregorash asked Gagnon to get in his cruiser so he could talk to him. “No way I’m getting into your f•••••• police car,” replied the ex-con. “I’m going home.”

The cop called for backup and followed the glue-head to the place he called home, a garage facing the back lane of 1034 9 St. S.E., which had been crudely converted into a suite. What police couldn’t have known at the time was a two-metre pit sat in the centre of the garage. It was an unknown fact at the time that would have deadly consequences.

Gregorash knocked on the door of the garage, but got no response. Two others, Const. Mel Linn and Const. Tom Dick, soon joined the officer at the scene. The trio went into the garage after Gagnon.

Once inside, the cops split up and Linn was the first to spot Gagnon.

The drug-addled ex-con held a bag of glue over his mouth and nose with one hand. He held a rifle in the other.

Never dropping the bag, Gagnon had a goofy grin on his face as he leveled the 30.06 hunting rifle at the startled cop and pulled the trigger.

Click. A misfire.

“He’s got a gun,” Linn bellowed in warning before diving for cover.

Gagnon then pointed the rifle at Dick.

Click.

Dick squeezed four quick shots at Gagnon, and then dove for cover behind a fridge while Gregorash ducked behind a table.

That’s when the uninjured, crazed gunman trained his rifle and squeezed another shot. The slug hit the top of the table, furrowed through the top layer of wood then lifted off and smacked Gregorash in the head, temporarily stunning the officer.

”Harv, can you get out?” Dick yelled. “Yeah,” said Gregorash, his voice small and strange.“Let’s go for it,” Dick yelled.

Linn, who’d made it outside the garage, came through the door and helped Gregorash to his feet and out the door to safety.

Dick, in the first of many police acts of bravery that day, ran in the opposite direction to draw Gagnon’s fire.

“I wasn’t trying to be a hero — I just wanted to give Mel and Harv a chance to find cover,” Dick later recalled.

Dick fired the last two shots from his .38-calibre revolver and jumped over a fence. That’s when he felt a bullet smash into his butt. The slug lodged in the cop’s wallet, stopped by the thick leather and wad of cash — greenback protection provided by a recently cashed paycheque.

Soon, the entire area was crawling with cops.

As live reports boomed from the kitchen radios throughout Calgary, people were stunned.

This was 1974 — no city police officer had been killed on the job in 40 years. Calgary was a society where people simply didn’t shoot police officers. But this guy, this Gagnon fellow, he meant business.

Setting up a crude perimeter, several cops took turns on the bullhorn.”C’mon fella, it’s useless. Give it up.”

No response.

“Come on out with your hands up and you won’t be shot.”

No response.

Yet another try. “Come on out, son. Come on out and you won’t be hurt and you’ll be out for Christmas.”

No response except for the loud report of the glue-sniffer’s rifle.

Tragically, Gagnon’s volley of shots left Det. Boyd Davidson, a 43-year-old father of five, dead, shot in the head.

Davidson was hidden behind a garage adjacent to the one where Gagnon was holed up. The officer would occasionally poke his head and shoulders from around the corner and fire several rounds from a shotgun in an attempt to blow holes through Gagnon’s garage door. Police weaponry just wasn’t powerful enough to penetrate the walls of the garage that had been constructed from the hardened timber of an old train box car.

Few bullets actually went through the garage walls, and Gagnon avoided those that did by simply ducking down into the grease pit.

The eventual openings in the door created by Davidson’s blasts were used by other officers to fire tear gas into the building. In all, 67 canisters of gas were fired. While red, teary-eyed cops outside felt the effects, it didn’t faze Gagnon. (Medical experts later theorized “touluene,” the active ingredient in the 40 tubes of airplane glue Gagnon inhaled, had an anaesthetic effect on his tear ducts and membranes, making him immune to the gas).

Gagnon must have seen Davidson because when the cop retreated to safety behind the garage, the killer fired. The high-powered bullet from the deer rifle went through the two corner walls of the garage and struck Davidson in the head, killing him almost instantly. The force of the slug lifted the 350-lb cop into the air and dropped him about three metres from where he originally stood.

A fragment from the same slug hit another officer, Kit Sylvester, in the neck. The cop fell to the ground, his life’s blood pumping in staggered bursts from the wound.

Another Calgary officer, Roy Evans, saved Sylvester’s life when he rammed his forefinger directly into the hole, effectively stopping the blood flow until medical help arrived.

Yet another shot and another officer was shot in the head.

Falling, Det. Nick Graham thought: “Well, if this is dying, at least it doesn’t hurt.”

A high-velocity bullet fired by Gagnon had blasted through two police cruisers and taken out part of Graham’s skull. Moments earlier, the seasoned police officer was carrying tear-gas canisters, boxes of shotgun shells and more ammunition to two officers directly in the line of fire behind their cruisers.

When he got behind the car, Sgt. Ben Robinson looked over.“For Christ’s sake, Nick, keep your head down.”

“Don’t worr—”

At that moment a bullet went through the four windows of both police cars before it hit Graham in the front of the head. Graham fell face down in the dirt, more than half his body now exposed to the gunman.

Realizing Graham could easily be shot again where he lay, Robinson instantly covered the fallen cop’s body with his.

”Nick,” pleaded Robinson.“Nick, please don’t die on me.”

Robinson’s tears drenched Graham’s exposed neck while Robinson used his own body as a shield.

“Benny.” Graham’s voice.”Get the f••• off my back, you’re killing me.”

Surprised Graham was alive; Robinson and a rookie cop pulled the injured cop to his feet and walked him away.

“Jesus, Nick, you’ve got a terrible hole in your head,” Robinson said. No one had bandages, but a rookie helping support Graham offered his clean T-shirt, which was ripped into a large strip and wrapped round Graham’s head.

By the time trio reached the ambulance, the gunman was shooting at it.

Less than a football field’s length away, a crowd gathered near a seedy downtown hotel. They too had radios and every time another cop was reported shot, a cheer went up from the throng.

In a span of moments, one highly respected veteran officer lay dead, seven others were wounded, and all the police firepower into the gunman’s garage hadn’t silenced him.

More officers crowded the scene, wanting to help fallen colleagues, taking up positions round the garage, adding to the firepower. Cops were hiding behind telephone poles, garages, cars and buildings, all firing their sidearms at will into the backyard and garage of the hideaway’s house. Many brought deer rifles from home.

The scale of the gun battle was incredible: Gagnon fired at least 70 shots, his high-velocity bullets going through walls and police cruisers to kill and wound officers who were quickly learning they had nowhere to hide. It was later established more than 60 officers had been directly in the line of fire, and at least 40 had emptied weapons, shooting 976 bullets at Gagnon’s garage.

Police knew they were in a battle that might take days to finish and cause more casualties or death. Finally, feeling they had few other options, cops called in the Canadian army. After a hurried telephone call to DND in Ottawa, an armoured personal carrier (APC) with three soldiers inside was dispatched from Calgary’s Currie barracks in the city’s southwest.

With Gagnon’s bullets pinging off it, the APC systematically began destroying the garage, taking out one corner, and then another. In the chaos, the military machine drove over and flattened police cruisers and filled with tear gas after crushing canisters under its tracks. But it flushed Gagnon out.

With a knapsack of ammunition on his back and a blazing rifle in each hand, the gunman made a mad dash from the garage. He ran only a few steps before he was cut down in a fusillade of police bullets.

An officer ran over to Gagnon’s still body and put his service revolver to the gunman’s head and began to squeeze the trigger.

A sergeant grabbed the officer’s hand.“Forget it,” he said.“It’s over.”

That terrible day saw one officer lose his life, and left seven others wounded.
The entire episode played out in just two short hours, but following Black Friday, Calgary police instituted the the elite Tactical Unit, a Canadian version of the U.S.’s SWAT.
Other police services across the country took note and instituted their own changes.

Mike D’Amour is the British Columbia Bureau Chief for the Western Standard.
mdamour@westernstandardonline.com

Mike D'Amour is the British Columbia Bureau Chief and Copy Editor for the Western Standard. He worked as an investigative crime reporter at the Calgary & Winnipeg Suns. mdamour@westernstandardonline.com

Features

FILDEBRANDT: How I beat City Hall over a ticket for shovelling my already cleared sidewalk

Calgary bureaucrats tried to bill me for (not) clearing my cleared sidewalk. They did not expect me to lawyer up & go to Court of Queen’s Bench.

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George Carlin once said, “You can’t fight city hall, but you can goddamn sure blow it up.”

I disagree with Carlin. You can fight city hall, but only if you have the resources, and sustained anger to do so.

This winter, a local Karen took it upon herself to make dozens of complaints against me and my neighbours for failing to shovel our sidewalks. At least half-a-dozen times, City of Calgary by-law officers paid a visit to my house to inspect my sidewalk and that of my neighbours. They normally pointed out that it wasn’t perfect, but was generally in good shape. Under questioning from me, they normally admitted that there was a serial complainant in the neighbourhood wasting everyone’s time.

City of Calgary Invoice dated March 6, 2021

On March 6, 2021 however, I received an “invoice” of $215 for the cost of the City to come and clean up my sidewalk, ostensibly covered with ice and snow.

It was a curious fine levied by the City. I was in Banff with the family that day, enjoying the high of 6 C. I shovelled the sidewalk before leaving that morning and, when we returned home that afternoon, we didn’t notice anything different about the sidewalk.

We only knew that anything had been “done” when we received the $215 invoice in the mail. Surely, some error must have been made.

Not content to pay the City for doing nothing, I appealed the invoice. On April 6, 2021, they responded in writing. The letter, and attached evidence, sent me in to rapturous rage.

City of Calgary denial of appeal, dated April 6, 2021

The City’s Community Standards Panel had reviewed my appeal, denied it, and ordered me to pay the invoice post-haste. To support their decision, they attached a series of photographs taken by the by-law officer.

The photos didn’t show a morsel of snow or ice on the sidewalk. They didn’t show the sidewalk obstructed in any way. They showed my beautiful sidewalk so clear and clean that one could eat off of it, if one was so inclined.

The evidence used to convict me of failing to clear my humble sidewalk was evidence I could submit to a lower court judge to prove the City was incorrect. Any sober judge would agree that the City was clearly trying to fleece me and my family for no wrongdoing, and no work done.

Unfortunately for me, there was no further means of appeal through regular channels. Unlike regular by-law infractions, which have tickets appealable in a court, this was an “invoice” and could not be appealed to the municipal courts.

The next morning, I had a meeting with the Western Standard’s lawyer and former Alberta Minister of Justice, Jonathan Denis, about an unrelated issue. At the conclusion of our meeting, I told Denis about the fiasco and showed him the pictures. The otherwise dignified man nearly fell out of his chair with laughter. He proceeded to pass the pictures around the law office, asking people what they thought was wrong with the sidewalk. The only answer was “it’s cracked.”

Himself long frustrated with city administration, he informed me he would take on my little $215 invoice pro bono (for free). We would wage nuclear war with the City over this molehill.

Back at the Western Standard’s Calgary office, I called the inspector listed as the contract on the denial of my appeal. She politely repeated the letter’s notification that my appeal had been denied, and that I was ordered to pay up.

I, in turn, informed her I had retained Jonathan Denis as counsel for the matter and would be appealing the invoice to the Court of Queen’s Bench immediately, and requested the contact information for the appropriate city lawyer.

Baffled at the response, she said that she would get back to me later in the day.

She did. Without request of a formal re-appeal the same panel — that decided days earlier that photos of my spotless sidewalks was enough to make me pony-up $215 — reversed itself and graciously found “there were sufficient ground to grant the [re-]appeal.”

No formal re-appeal was actually made.

On April 6, I was guilty, and my appeal was denied. On April 7, I was innocent and my second appeal, that was never filed, was accepted.

There is only one reason that this ended well for me. I fought back against a process which is not accustomed to people fighting back against.

An “invoice” of $215 isn’t cheap, but it certainly isn’t a sum that would justify a full-blown court fight.

Since there was no municipal court with which to directly challenge the invoice, my lawyer would have had to file the appeal through the Court of Queen’s Bench at a application fee of $250. Without any other cost whatsoever, it would have cost $35 more than the ticket itself just to be heard by a judge.

With affidavits and other minimal legal fees, costs would easily have exceeded $2,000-$3,000, not including the application fee itself.

When a ticket or invoice is $215, and the cost of fighting it is $3,250, not many Calgarians would bother. But not many Calgarians have the former minister of justice as a friend, willing to drag the City into court just to make a point.

We decided to make this point because I am not the only city taxpayer that deals with ham-fisted bureaucrats, impervious to the real lives of the people paying their salaries.

If our case had gone forward to the courts, we would have required the testimony of the dozen-or-so by-law officers who had their time wasted visiting our block to respond to Karen’s complaints over the winter of 2020-21. We would have used the City government’s own photographic “evidence” as our own to prove that the sidewalks were clear. We would have required the testimony of the contractor who did the backbreaking labour of cleaning up, well, nothing.

It would have been an embarrassment for the City administration as we probed into how they operate. Surely, the judge would be unamused with the City for wasting his time, and punitively fining taxpayers to fill its coffers.

The $215 may have been a relative mole hill, but we felt it was worth making a mountain over because the City of Calgary does this to its people, and the vast majority of them have no real recourse. It may not be a serious criminal matter, but it is a matter of access to justice nonetheless.

The City bureaucrats dropped the case because they know this.

The easiest way to correct this kind of imbalance of power is to remove the appeals process from the self-appointed prosecutors (bureaucrats), and give regular taxpayers access to the municipal courts.

It was admittedly satisfying to fight city hall, but I would have been better for the City’s taxpayers to goddam blow it up.

Derek Fildebrandt is the Publisher of the Western Standard

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65 signs that you might be an Albertan

Crackmacs, prairie oysters, Stampede, rat genocide, caesars, and weird small town kitsch are just a few of the signs that you might be an Albertan.

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Albertans are a special breed. There’s no one quite like us anywhere else in the world.

What makes us unique as a people? That’s the question the Western Standard Editorial Board has been contemplating since going to a bar after work is illegal.

We spent some time on the project, and with the help of some brilliant friends across the country, came up with a still-growing list of some of the things that make us just a wee bit different.

“Crackmacs” in Calgary

65 – Crackmacs

You should avoid going there.

Prairie oysters

64 – Prairie Oysters

You have to try them before you can become one of us.

63 – Newcomers

You are a more fanatical Alberta patriot if you weren’t born here.

62 – Quebec

You don’t know why, but you really don’t like it.

61 – Saskatchewan

You don’t know why, but you like it.

60 – Newfies

They might talk funny, but they’re the best Albertans around. 

Toronto

59 – Toronto

You may not like Quebec, but you hate Toronto. 

58 – Vancouver 

You both love and hate Vancouver.

57 – Ottawa

A place your money goes to be spent somewhere else.

56 – Getup

You wear a decent pair of cowboy boots, a Stetson, and a pair of Wranglers on at least one day during Calgary Stampede or whatever Klondike days is calling itself these days. 

Cowboy boots


55 – Boots

You can pull off cowboy boots at a downtown office any time of the year. 

54 – Rodeo

It’s not your first one.

53 – Cowboys

You think you’re one because you dressed up for Stampede and have been to the Last Chance Saloon outside Drumheller. 

52 – Calgary Stampede 

It’s redneck Oktoberfest.

51 – K-Days

Something Edmonton does because it doesn’t have Stampede.

A “Rat Patrol” propoganda poster

50 – Rat Genocide

You live in the only place on earth (other than Antarctica) with zero rats because your government has an actual department called the Rat Patrol. Killing them is a civil duty, and you don’t think this is weird at all. 

Main characters of the Trailer Park Boys

49 – Trailer Park Boys

What you think the East coast is really like.

48 – Hail Caesar 

You drink caesars, not bloody Marys. And you drink them with pride knowing they were invented in Calgary by Walter Chell, at the Owl’s Nest in the Westin Hotel.

47 – The Metric System 

You’re still not completely sold on it.

Ginger fried beef

46 – Prairie Chinese food

You’re proud that the best Chinese food in the world comes from the other side of the planet from China: prairie ginger beef.

45 – Chinese and Western

You don’t think there’s anything strange about a small village’s only eatery being a ‘Chinese and Western’ restaurant that serves ginger beef alongside hamburgers and fries. 

44 – Breakfast beer

You don’t see anything wrong with pouring some Clamato in your beer to take the hair off the dog. 

Ian Tyson

43 – Four Strong Winds

You tear up when listening to Four Strong Winds, by Ian Tyson.

42 – Four Strong Winds (II)

You burst into rage after listening to Four Strong Winds, by Neil Young.

41 – Alberta Bound

You’re unable to remain composed or resist singing it at the top of your lungs whenever it comes on. 

Big Sugar frontman Gordie Johnson (photo credit: Big Sugar)

40 – All Hell for a Basement

You stand up proud at attention as Big Sugar’s Alberta national anthem plays on the radio.

39 – Nickelback

You either want to forget about it, or think that it’s our greatest cultural export. 

kd lang

38 – k.d. lang

When she belted out Hallelujah during the 2010 Winter Olympics Opening Ceremonies in Vancouver, you were sure she’s Alberta’s patron saint. 

37 –Cal-gree”

You know when someone isn’t originally from here, because they pronounce it ‘Cal-ga-ree’ not the proper ‘Cal-gree’.

Banff National Park

36 – Banff

The reason Calgary thinks it’s better than Edmonton.

35 – Jasper

Where Edmontonians go to pretend they’re in Banff.

34 – The River Valley

The reason Edmontonians think their city is better than Calgary. 

33 – Red Deer

It’s neutral meeting ground for Calgarians and Edmontonians. 

Head smashed in buffalo jump

32 Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

An actual place.

31 – Tar Sands

You’ll murder anyone in cold blood who calls them that.

30 – Fracking

Something you do to extract oil and gas, or with your significant other. 

29 – Separatism

You want to separate from Canada when you’re 10 beers deep, but sing O’Canada when you sober up. 

28 – Canada Day

A day off to get ready for the Calgary Stampede

27 – MPs

People we send to Ottawa to forget about.

Courtesy dailiyxtra.com

26 – Anyone named Trudeau

You, your parents, and grandparents hate everyone with the name.

25 – National Energy Program

You will never forget. 

24 – Petro Canada

You remember when for decades the Petro Canada Tower was the largest building in Calgary, and you hated everything it represented. 

23 – The government

You worked for four years to vote out the NDP, and still hate the government.

22 – Federal elections

You, your parents, and grandparents federal voting history is a straight line. 

21 – Your provincial vote

You don’t care that you voted for the Conservatives federally and voted Wildrose or NDP provincially.

Spring camping in Alberta

20 – Spring blizzard camping

You’re so sick of winter that you don’t care if there’s a snow storm when you go camping on the May long weekend. 

19 – Patio season

You take the patio furniture out of the garage and hit the local bar patio as soon as the temperature soars to a high of 10C.

Summer in Calgary. Courtesy CBC

18 – Summer

There is no such thing. Only construction season.

17 – Labour Day

You know Labour Day has been set aside as a CFL Battle of Alberta. And winter starts tomorrow.

16 – Winter BBQ

You don’t think there’s anything strange about firing up the BBQ to grill some steaks when it’s -30C. 

15 – Cabins

You go away for the weekend to a cabin, not a cottage.

Image Credit: CBC

14 – Gun Control

You think ‘gun control’ means being able to shoot a moose at 100 yards with iron sights. 

13 – Lindsay Park

You refuse to call it the Talisman Centre.

The Big Beaver in Beaver Lodge, AB

12 – Weird, giant small-town kitsch 

Your idea of a romantic first date is to drive to Beaver Lodge to see the big beaver. 

11 – Ukrainians

You don’t really know why the Ukrainians in Alberta are the word leaders of weird small-town kitsch, with the giant pysanka (Easter egg) in Vegreville, the World’s largest kielbasa sausage in Mundare, or the massive perogy in Glendon. 

Bow Island Pinto Bean

10 – Pinto Beans

You’ve seen the Bow Island Pinto Bean, and it scared the hell out of you as a child.

The USS Enterprise in Vulcan, Alberta (Image Credit: Travel Alberta)

9 – Vulcans

You don’t have to be a Trekie to make pilgrimage to Vulcan and take in the small town’s fanatical devotion to Commander Spock, and its own weird, giant small-town kitsch: a massive model of the USS Enterprise.

8– More Aliens

You know that there’s an actual UFO Landing Pad in St. Paul, and you don’t think there’s anything weird about that. 

UFO Landing Site in St. Paul, AB

7 – French

‘Poutine’ is the extent of it.

6 – The Great Ones

You know who Gretz, Mess, Lanny, Iggy and Kipper are.

The Greatest One

5 – Vegetables

Your potato salad on the side of your beef-on-a-bun is sufficient. 

4 – Brooks

A place where cattle go to die.

3Valhalla 

A place where the glorious dead feast, and a few guys farm wheat. 

T-Rex in downtown Drumheller

2 – Dinosaurs

You think you know all about them because you went to the Drumheller.

1 – Deerfoot Trail

You agree that it is one of the worst-designed roads in the history of Western civilization.

So that’s a less-than-scientific rundown on what makes Albertans. But have we missed any? Let us know at dnaylor@westernstandardonline.com and we will run a list of some reader-inspired “You know you’re from Alberta when …?”

Western Standard Editorial Board

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SLOBODIAN: Winnipeg mother who lost two children to overdoses speaks out

In 2020, drug-related overdoses claimed 372 lives in the province, a disturbing increase of 87% over 2019.

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Winnipeg’s Janis Gillam vividly recalls walking into her daughter Phoebe’s Grade One classroom on the parent-teacher night and seeing a wall decorated with pictures of turkeys, coloured by the students. One rainbow-coloured turkey stood out. She immediately knew it was Phoebe’s.

With so many colours, there was no need to just use brown, orange and black like everyone else, explained Phoebe. Admiring her own creativity, she added: “So beautiful, it can’t help but make you smile, mommy.”

So, what happened to the joyful little girl who coloured a rainbow turkey all those years ago? She grew up to become a statistic in the grim findings recently released by Manitoba’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

In 2020, drug-related overdoses claimed 372 lives in the province, a disturbing increase of 87% over 2019. The majority of these deaths involved opioids, including fentanyl. Death by methamphetamines came in second.

These are preliminary findings. The number of deaths in the age 10-19 category is pending confirmation. One victim was over 81.

Manitoba’s hike was particularly sharp, but drug deaths in 2020 increased across Canada. Experts agree that COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions, coupled with increasingly toxic street drugs laced with fentanyl, contributed to this crisis.

The ravages of addiction took Gillam’s daughter away from her, long before last July 26, when mother of two Phoebe Wilson, 31, died of a fentanyl-related overdose in the apartment of someone she’d met hours earlier – one day before she was scheduled to enter treatment.

“This addiction takes over and they aren’t your child anymore. She wasn’t my baby anymore. She was a different person,” says Gillam.

At 18, Phoebe injured her back and used opioids to ease the pain. When the prescriptions stopped she fed her addiction with easily available street drugs.

It didn’t take long for the personality of the beautiful, bubbly, gifted artist, who won an art award in her senior year, to disappear. Her abstract works became dark and sad, then ceased when she could no longer use her hands to draw.

Those with loved ones struggling with severe addictions pray, try to help, cling to hope, yet fear the day that dreaded phone call may come.

Police didn’t call. They arrived in person to tell Gillam her daughter was dead and handed her a Ziplock bag with Phoebe’s ring in it.

“She led a torturous life because she was using. Someone looked down on her and said enough,” says Gillam.

“Phoebe fought hard. She was a warrior. She fought a tough battle with addiction and mental health issues. She was in and out of programs and rehab many times. She was a crash-and-burn type of addict. She could be clean for a year or longer, then use.”

Still reeling from Phoebe’s death, another drug overdose death shattered Gillam’s family last December when her stepson Chris Read, 37, a father who lived in B.C., died of a fentanyl-related overdose. No one knew he was using drugs.

Chris Read

“He was at a party. They were in a circle, drinking and having a gay old time. He just collapsed. We lost two children in less than five months,” says Gillam.

On holidays, Gillam decorates a tree in her front yard and sets up a memorial for Phoebe and Chris. Many people stop to talk about someone they know battling addiction, or someone they’ve lost to overdoses. So, the 87% increase in deaths in 2020 doesn’t surprise Gillam.

She belongs to Overdose Awareness Manitoba, a support group lobbying the province to offer medically-assisted detox and long-term treatment, as well as, set up safe consumption sites.

Premier Brian Pallister recently said the province is investing more resources into dealing with wellness and healing, but safe injection sites are not planned for Manitoba.

The government isn’t alone in its opposition to safe injection sites. Many argue they support drug use and infringe on the rights of area residents, posing a threat to their safety by attracting drug users and predators.

More resources are definitely needed to help people heal their emotional wounds enough to find the hope and strength to beat addictions.

More police resources are needed to crack down on the thriving illegal drug trade.

Until greedy dealers, who lace drugs with fentanyl and other synthetic opioids to increase their profits, are mercilessly hunted down, the problem will prevail.

Until then, more current addicts, as well as innocent little ones now safe in classrooms, will eventually become statistics on a medical examiner’s report.

Linda Slobodian is the Manitoba Political Columnist for the Western Standard

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