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Lori Vrebosch is part of a growing movement of bereaved mothers trying to combat the opioid epidemic

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Lori Vrebosch of Lethbridge, Alta., lost her son to opioids in 2018.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Lori Vrebosch doesn’t fit anyone’s image of an agitator. She is 50 years old and drives a shiny black SUV. She travels around with her little dog Ike, an apple head Chihuahua with bad breath. Her favourite expression is “holy macaroni.”

But at 7:02 p.m. on Oct. 2, 2018, she got a call that changed her forever. Her son Mitchell had died of a drug overdose at the age of 25.

Some parents are ashamed when one of their children succumbs to an overdose. Others grieve quietly. Ms. Vrebosch is among a growing minority that throw themselves into activism. “You don’t choose that,” she says. “The wound just makes you that way.”

Driven by her loss, she is waging an uphill battle to change the way southern Alberta handles its drug problem. She stockpiles boxes of life-saving overdose kits and hands them out to endangered drug users. She makes T-shirts in her basement with slogans such as Nice People Take Drugs. She meets other wounded mothers, offering hugs and advice on how to get involved.

Her work has turned her into a fierce critic of Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party government, which cut off funding for an overdose-prevention site in Lethbridge, citing “gross misuse” of government money. If that makes her an agitator, she says, she will just “keep agitating.” Otherwise “nothing is going to change and people are going to continue to die and suffer.”

Ms. Vrebosch is part of a national movement dedicated to shaking up Canada’s approach to drug addiction and drug users. Its biggest group, Moms Stop the Harm, was formed by three grieving women in April, 2016, just as British Columbia, the province hardest hit by the crisis, declared a public-health emergency. Five-and-a-half years and thousands of deaths later, it has more than 3,000 members.

It wants more safe supplies and safe drugs for users, more help for those trying to overcome addiction and, above all, more understanding for people who find themselves in the thrall of a new generation of powerful, often deadly intoxicants.

Ms. Vrebosch was born in North Bay, Ont. Her parents were Catholic-school principals. Leaving home when she was 14, she married young and had two boys.

The younger son, Mitchell, the family’s Bart Simpson, struggled in school, got into petty theft and started using drugs. In his 20s he was jailed for stealing a car. He went to stay with his brother, Jordan, when he got out and seemed to be on a good path. Jordan once found him sitting cross-legged on the floor having a tea party with his young niece.

“For the first time in forever it felt like everything was okay,” Ms. Vrebosch says. A month later, the day of the season’s first snowfall, Jordan went to wake Mitch. He found his brother lifeless in his bed from an overdose.

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Shannon Eagle Speaker lost two teenage sons to drug overdoses and is watching a third son wrestle with addiction. Her community on Blood 148, a First Nations reserve in southern Alberta, has been devastated by the opioid overdose epidemic.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Ms. Vrebosch started pushing for change in the community where she lives: the Piikani First Nation near Pincher Creek. A 5-foot-5-inch ball of fire with a shaggy mane of blonde hair, she shares a home there with Brian Jackson, a band councillor who lost a brother to an overdose. One of three nations in the Blackfoot Confederacy, Piikani has 3,600 registered members, about 60 per cent of them living on reserve. Their ancestors hunted bison over lands that ranged all the way into what is now Montana. Today the main settlement is Brocket, a gathering of modest houses where the brown grass sways in the wind and passing freight trains wail.

Alcohol and drugs have been persistent plagues, made worse in recent years by the arrival of fentanyl, the potent synthetic opioid. In one recent case, a Piikani mother grieving her son’s overdose death died of an overdose herself a week later. Indigenous people in Alberta are dying of opioid overdoses at seven times the rate of the non-Indigenous, a government study last year showed.

Ms. Vrebosch organized a overdose-awareness event at Piikani’s annual powwow. She posed for a photo shoot in which mothers who had lost children stood beside white crosses. She and her friends gave out the overdose-reversing drug naloxone to high-risk households.

As time passed, she grew impatient with what she saw as Piikani’s hidebound approach to its drug problem. On the highway that passes through Brocket, she notes, a sign still urges people simply to Say No to Drugs. Great advice, she says bitterly. Rather than trying vainly to keep drugs out, she would prefer to see community leaders fully embrace the approach known as harm reduction, which stresses keeping drug users alive and reducing the stigma they face. Piikani council member Terry Provost says she is off-base: The community is doing what it can, including sending users to treatment and caring for them at the local Healing House. The clash is complicated by the fact that Ms. Vrebosch is an outsider and her partner, Mr. Jackson, is involved in a long-running dispute with the band leadership.

She finds herself bumping up against more barriers in Lethbridge, where she and Mr. Jackson have a second home. The city of 100,000 is a magnet for Indigenous people from around southern Alberta. Some end up in the parks and streets of downtown, gathering to drink, smoke and just survive.

Until funding was cut last year, the busy overdose prevention site gave them a place to use in secure surroundings, with staff on hand to help in case they overdosed. Many locals opposed it, saying it attracted crime and disorder. In one notorious incident, a young man opened fire with a paintball gun at a crowd outside, hitting a female staffer.

The Kenney government defends the decision to halt funding, saying that a mobile site that took its place is meeting the current demand and that Alberta is investing heavily in helping people recover from addiction. Ms. Vrebosch says the closing robbed local drug users of their only safe space, leaving them to use in doorways and lonely rooms. “It’s just cruel, beyond cruel.”

Frustrated but determined, she is trying to broaden the campaign. She has made friends with the Sage Clan, an outreach group that patrols downtown Lethbridge handing out sandwiches, water and fresh socks. Joining a patrol one blustery evening this fall, she stopped to talk to Davy Healy, 35. He told her he had been a top horse wrangler making thousands of dollars a job before the pandemic shut down the rodeo circuit and he ended up on the street. Putting his fingers to his lips, he demonstrated the sharp whistle he uses to summon horses. Ms. Vrebosch said she had three horses herself and could use a man like him. “You know what: I’m going to come looking for you,” she said with a laugh. “I need you sober so you can ride.”

The day before, she and a friend drove to the territory of the Blood Tribe, another Blackfoot community devastated by the overdose epidemic. There, they visited Shannon Eagle Speaker, a 38-year-old mother who lost two teenage sons to drug overdose and is watching a third son wrestle with addiction. Shooing her dogs away and inviting the visitors inside her neat yellow house, she told them that she worried every time she heard a siren, and “there have been sirens going on all bloody day.” But “I’m not going to give up on my son.”

Ms. Vrebosch told Ms. Eagle Speaker to call if she needed anything, “morning, noon or night,” and implored her to join her campaign. “I need help; I really legit need help.”

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A billboard in the east end of the Blood Reserve in southern Alberta warns about the dangers of fentanyl.Bill Graveland/The Canadian Press

Ms. Vrebosch often feels exhausted and close to despair. Despite the reforms that groups such as Moms Stop the Harm have helped bring about – more supervised injection sites across the country, more naloxone on the streets, more addiction-medicine clinics and treatment centres – the deaths keep mounting. “It’s like being trapped in mud up to your neck and all you can do is watch.”

But in small but meaningful ways, her campaign is making a difference. Over the holiday season, she and her allies set up a tipi in a Lethbridge mall to publicize overdose prevention and another of her favourite causes: reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. She sold T-shirts, keychains, buttons and hats, helping to raise money for a new support group she is starting: We Will Recover. She gathered more than 1,000 signatures on a petition calling on Ottawa to declare the overdose epidemic a national emergency. She invited friends such as Ms. Eagle Speaker to come down and help.

One day, someone rushed into the mall to say they needed naloxone – a man was having an overdose in a nearby park. Ms. Vrebosch and a friend went running, found the young man slumped on a bench and gave him shots of naloxone nasal spray, reversing the overdose and possibly saving his life. Twenty minutes later he came over to the mall to return the brand-new phone she had dropped during the rescue and had been frantically searching for ever since. “I thought, ‘Holy macaroni, that’s crazy. This guy has got nothing and he brings it back to me,’ ” she recalls.

The incident seemed to confirm everything she has been saying about the humanity of overdose victims. “If I have to kick in doors to get you the help you need, you know, gee whiz, I will,” she told him. “We can’t afford to be losing people like you.” The man’s name was Nick.

Proponents of safe supply say it’s a way to curb the growing number of Canadians dying each year to a street drug supply saturated with dangerous substances such as fentanyl. Safe supply programs offer pharmaceutical alternatives and studies show they can prevent overdoses and other crime, while critics worry that recipients may sell their prescribed drugs to buy other substances.

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