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On top of grief and shame, families of victims frustrated with stigma of opioid use

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For a time, Daryl Owen Sen had it all.

The Calgary man had a great job as market manager with Mac’s, the convenience store chain, and was loved by his colleagues. He owned two condos. His passport was inked with stamps from dozens of countries. And he had a big, loving family in the city.

« Daryl was one of the nicest guys in the world, » his brother-in-law and close friend Jeremy Campbell said.

« He was one of the smartest guys I ever met. His heart was open to everybody and everything. That’s why I guess we got along so well. »

But Sen also struggled with substance abuse. For many years, alcohol was his drug of choice.

Daryl Owen Sen was 39 when he died of an overdose last year. (Supplied)

« It started changing him a little bit, not right off the bat, » Sen’s younger sister Becky Campbell recalled.

The addiction became progressively worse, Campbell said, and « when alcohol wasn’t a strong enough high, that’s when drugs got introduced. »

Sen was in a treatment program in Calgary for alcohol addiction when someone introduced him to fentanyl, the synthetic painkiller and illicit drug at the heart of the opioid crisis.

Fentanyl is 100 times stronger than morphine. It can be smoked, injected, snorted or swallowed in pill form.

« Someone offered him some for free, » said his best friend, Marie Hermanson. « He was hooked right away. »

Eventually, she said, Sen was using carfentanil, too — an even more potent analogue of fentanyl that’s used to tranquilize elephants and rhinos.

Becky Campbell remembers how angry she felt when she found out her brother was using fentanyl.

« When he told me, I got mad at him, » she said. « I was like, ‘What are you doing, are you trying to kill yourself? It’s like you’re attempting suicide every time you take it.’ I guess he felt like, with everything else he’d done with his body, he maybe thought he was immune to it. »

Jeremy Campbell remembers talking to his brother-in-law again and again, suggesting he curb the habit.

« As things got worse and worse, we’d have that conversation again and I’d say, ‘Man, you need to stop all of it, because I don’t want to tell my children you’re dead.’ He’d say no, it’ll never happen. And we actually started to believe that as a family, because he’d pulled through some really crazy times. It seemed like he had nine lives. »

In 2017, 569 people in Alberta died of accidental fentanyl poisoning. That’s more than 80 per cent of all the accidental opioid poisonings in the province.

Sen was one of them. Late one Thursday afternoon in early March 2017, he was watching a basketball game at a Calgary rec centre when he collapsed on a bench. Less than 12 hours later, Sen was dead. He was 39 years old.

« He didn’t want to die. I know that. He did not want to die, » Becky Campbell said. « This was not a choice for him. It was bigger than he was. Unfortunately, he couldn’t stop. »

The fallout for Sen’s family isn’t just the fact they’ve lost a man they love dearly in traumatic, sudden circumstances. It’s the fact they now have to contend with all the judgment and misunderstanding surrounding opioid addiction.

Misconceptions, judgment

Becky Campbell doesn’t tell just anyone how her brother died.

« To be honest, I watch the crowd and I watch the audience, » she said. « There’s some times where, I don’t know why, I feel ashamed, I feel embarrassed, but not for myself, for him, and I don’t want to embarrass him. That’s what’s hard. I don’t want people to think bad of him. I don’t want the last outcome of Daryl to be that he was this addict, because there was so much more to him than that. »

Jeremy Campbell said his own perspectives on addiction have dramatically shifted.

« I used to think it was a certain group of people, » he said. « Knowing Daryl, I have a different outlook when I’m driving through the streets of Calgary. I see a guy on the street, on the corner. Maybe I had a different outlook on him before. »

What runs through Campbell’s mind now is, « That’s somebody’s uncle, that’s somebody’s dad, that’s somebody’s brother. He’s probably a good guy and he’s caught up in this addiction world. »

Daryl Sen’s father, Surhit, said his son was a generous, lovable and kind man who called him twice a day to see how he was doing. Surhit Sen doesn’t tell people what happened to Daryl.

« I keep it secret, » said Sen. « I didn’t even mention it to my friends, or anybody. Feeling shame. It’s a bad thing, people taking the drugs, you know? »

« I keep it to myself. I feel good this way. At least I didn’t tell anybody. I was so proud about him. »

Many of those who’ve lost loved ones say the judgment hurts almost as much as the grief.

Katherine Pederson and Matthew Faulds lost their daughter Angelina to fentanyl in 2017. (CBC)

« The stigma is so thick, » said Katherine Pederson, whose teenage daughter Angelina died of accidental fentanyl poisoning at a Calgary Stampede party in 2017. She was only 16 years old.

« The thing about this crisis is, it doesn’t discriminate. It will take out whoever. »

That’s why Pederson and her husband, Matthew Faulds, prefer to say « fentanyl poisoning » instead of « fentanyl overdose, » because the latter implies some sort of intent.

Angelina (Lina) Pederson was 16 when she died after taking fentanyl at a Calgary Stampede party. (Supplied)

Faulds doesn’t shy away from using the « F word » when he tells people how his daughter died.

« They give me this look, and I go, ‘Think a kid’s going to take a pill at a party? You remember ecstasy? It’s not ecstasy anymore. It’s whatever they cooked up — with fentanyl. Guarantee it. »

He doesn’t deny Angelina had a drug problem, but said she didn’t want to overdose.

« Did she mean to get high? Absolutely. But the days of innocent drug use are gone. You don’t get second chance. »

Teresa Wiebe’s son, Nick Leinweber, died of carfentanil poisoning in October 2017. Nick was 25.

For several years, he had struggled with a meth addiction, but Wiebe said he was not known to ever use opioids. She was shocked to find out how he’d died.

« When we got the [toxicology] report and I saw that it was carfentanil, it made it seem almost to me like murder. I know it’s not, I know whoever is concocting this stuff, putting it together, has no experience, is not a chemist, is not a pharmacist, is not a doctor. They don’t know what they’re doing, they’re trying to make money. That’s what they’re trying to do. They don’t know how deadly this is. »

‘Hierarachy of stigma’

It will be a year this month since Leinweber died, and for Wiebe, what makes the grief doubly challenging is what she calls « the hierarchy of stigma » around addiction.

« It’s OK for everyone to smoke weed, » she said, especially once cannabis becomes legal in Canada. Cocaine is seen as a drug for the wealthy, like doctors and lawyers. But once you get to meth, you’re « getting down into the wrong side of the tracks, » Wiebe said, and opioids like heroin or carfentanil are « probably the worst. »

« People didn’t want to know that [Nick] would be using heroin, that would be a step down from meth. It’s like a caste system for addiction. »

Yvonne Clark lost her son Connor to fentanyl poisoning in 2013, before most people had even heard of fentanyl. Connor was 21 years old, earning $100,000 a year as a power engineer with an oil and gas company, and drove a Porsche. He tried to get clean, then took a fentanyl tablet over Thanksgiving weekend, and never woke up.

Yvonne Clark’s son Connor died of fentanyl poisoning in 2013, when he was 21. (CBC)

For the past four years, Clark has been speaking to kids and parents in Calgary schools about the risks of popping pills at parties. She wants people to shed the notion it can’t happen to them. Dealing with the misconceptions was difficult in the early days following her son’s death, but it didn’t take long before she decided she had to act.

« I just woke one day and I realized that such an innocent, beautiful person can vanish. Just vanish in the blink of an eye, » she said. « Over a tiny little pill. I just figured the stigma was doing nothing. If you’re going to stay behind a door and not speak out, nothing’s going to be solved. »

With fentanyl deaths continuing to rise in just a few short years, she said, « Someone has to speak. »

Pederson also refuses to keep quiet. She thumbs her nose at shame.

Matthew Faulds shows tattoos that he got in memory of his daughter Lina, who died of fentanyl poisoning in 2017. (CBC)

« I want to talk about [Lina] all the time. I’m not ashamed of her addiction. Well, the addiction, I could kick its ass, but [Lina], no. There’s so many people and they’re hurting. They’re hurting and they’re in despair. I look at people and want to tell them, hug them: ‘People love you.' »

Wiebe worries about others. It’s the reason she wants people to hear her son’s story.

« I just panic about it, » she said. « I hear about it all the time. Friends who have kids who are starting to dabble and stuff like that. It’s like, ‘Oh man. Here, I want to give you a picture of my dead son to show your kid.’ Like, pictures with him with all the equipment on his face.

« The worst pictures are a week later, when we went to say goodbye, because by that time, his face is all blotchy and he just came out of a freezer, and he’s freezing cold when you put your lips on his forehead. Frozen, frozen, frozen. »

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Anglais

‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Anglais

Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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