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Vancouver moms hang purple sashes to remember children lost to overdose

Deb Bailey lost her daughter Ola just a few days before Christmas in 2015. "We look like we're fine but we're missing a chunk," she says.
Moms Stop the Harm member Deb Bailey joined other mothers in hanging purple sashes along Robson Street Aug. 16 to remember children lost in the overdose crisis.

Deb Bailey says she will always remember that phone call, the one where she learned her 21-year-old daughter Ola had died of an overdose.

It was Dec. 22, 2015, days before Christmas.

Her daughter’s death spurred her to become involved in advocacy and awareness around drug use and addiction. That led to her becoming involved with Moms Stop the Harm, a network of Canadian families who have been impacted by substance use-related harms and deaths.

On Tuesday, members of the group tied purple sashes and remembrances along Robson Street.

“We look like we’re fine but we’re missing a chunk,” Bailey told Glacier Media outside the Vancouver Art Gallery; the site was also used as a memorial for the children who never came home from Canada’s residential schools.

It’s a way of remembering and creating awareness, says Bailey, noting Ola is always with her.

“She dances in rivulets of my brain all the time,” she said. “She’s still with me.”

Moms Stop the Harm picked Aug. 16 to tie the sashes because it coincided with the BC Coroners Service announcement about June's illicit drug death numbers. New data shows more than 10,000 lives have been lost to a toxic drug supply since the B.C. government declared it a public health emergency in 2016.

The coroner says 146 people died of suspected illicit drug toxicity in June, down 26% from the number of deaths in May 2022 (197) and a 17% drop from June 2021 (175).

"We have lost a generation of people," Moms Stop the Harm co-founder Leslie McBain told reporters Tuesday.

In her hand, Bailey held a stack of cards with the photographs of young people with the ages at which they died.

August is also International Overdose Awareness Month, Bailey said.

Bailey said her experiences with her child highlighted so many struggles her daughter had. It became apparent, she said, that there were many things wrong in the way drug use and addiction issues were being handled.

Bailey told Glacier Media she has found support with other members of Moms Stop the Harm, which advocates for change in “failed drug policies,” and also provides peer support to grieving families, and assists those with loved ones who use or have used substances.

She stressed drug use is not a party.

“It’s not about getting high,” Bailey said. “It’s about pain.”

“The public is becoming aware,” she added. “The viewpoint is beginning to shift.”

The Robson Street event is not the only awareness event for Moms Stop the Harm this summer.

Bailey is inviting people to drop in at downtown Vancouver’s Wosk Centre for the Sudden Silence: Hidden Voices display of photographs of 16 lost young people. She said each image has a QR code. Viewers can scan it and find out who those people were.

And if you see a purple chair somewhere in the Lower Mainland this month — in communities like Langley — Bailey said it's a reminder of someone who's gone.

“The empty chair is always going to be at your table and wherever you go.”