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Remembering peer advocate Paige Phillips, who lost her life to toxic drugs

‘She was never afraid to speak her wisdom,’ a friend recalls.
Mother of two Paige Phillips died last Sunday of a toxic drug poisoning in Victoria. Friend and peer advocate Guy Felicella said her death is a reminder that no one is safe from the increasingly poisoned and unpredictable drug supply.

Paige Phillips is being remembered as a fierce friend, loving mother and “tiny fighter” for the rights of drug users, single mothers and  marginalized people in British Columbia.

Phillips died last Sunday  of a toxic drug poisoning in Victoria. The BC Coroners Service is  investigating. The 32-year-old was a mother to two young daughters with  her partner, Jack Phillips.

More than 10,000 people have been killed by the toxic drug crisis in British Columbia since it was declared a public health emergency in 2016.

“Paige was charming and fierce, and she  always went down swinging,” said Fred Cameron, who met Phillips while  the two were research assistants at the University of Victoria, and  later worked with her at SOLID,  a peer outreach organization for others with substance-use disorder  that provides harm reduction education and employment supports in  Victoria. (Jack Phillips asked Cameron to speak to The Tyee in his  stead.)

“She spoke up on behalf and gave voice and strength and a place to talk to people who didn’t have it,” Cameron said.

Friend and peer advocate  Guy Felicella said Phillips’ death is a reminder that no one, even the  most informed community members and activists, are safe from the  increasingly poisoned and unpredictable drug supply.

“I’m just so angry at the illicit supply,”  said Felicella. “It doesn’t know how to stop taking people. And it sadly  takes away your friends, your family, your community, and it’s causing  generational trauma.”

In an interview  with Postmedia, Jack Phillips said his partner would likely still be  alive if there was a safer drug supply available, as experts and  advocates have repeatedly called on for years.

The young couple met on the East Coast and  moved to Victoria together, founding SOLID in 2007. Paige Phillips also  studied business at Camosun College.

SOLID has facilitated employment for nearly  3,500 drug users since it was founded, and expanded to offer emergency  housing supports at the start of the pandemic.

Paige’s compassion and deep sense of  justice guided her work as an advocate, friends and colleagues told The  Tyee. She had had a hard life and always made an effort to break those  cycles by being kind to others.

Phillips seemed to have a “biological  clock” that told her when and where to find people in downtown Victoria  who may need her help, Felicella said. 

He recalls Phillips giving someone her last $5 because they needed it more. “She worked hard to get people housed,” he added.

That included speaking up for single  mothers who used drugs, who fear asking for help or sharing they are  struggling because it can mean they’d lose their children, said Cameron.  (Child apprehension is a key risk factor for drug poisonings in B.C.)

And when health-care staff wouldn’t listen  to Phillips or other peers about the end-of-life wishes of a dying  friend who was unhoused, she sought to change that through the Equity in Palliative Approaches to Care collective.

Equity in Palliative Approaches to Care  collective lead researcher and nursing professor Kelli Stajduhar  remembers Paige, in tears, recalling how frustrating and dehumanizing it  had been to not be able to help her friend. By the time the collective  next met, Phillips had condensed 50 pages of advanced care planning  documents from the province’s website into a six-page version. 

“And she said, ‘I think we can do this with  people who use drugs and people who are marginalized in the  community,’” said Stajduhar.

“The thing I love about Paige is she was never afraid to say and speak her wisdom,” she added.

A version of that six-page document  Phillips drafted is now used in shelters and transitional houses across  Victoria to ensure dignified deaths and end-of-life instructions are  followed for the most vulnerable. Phillips also went on to help secure  funding for a mobile palliative care team operating for vulnerable  people in Victoria.

As a result, Stajduhar said, hundreds more  people have and will have their end-of-life wishes respected. “Paige  was, in some ways, the glue in our community that helped us move the  palliative care work forward.”

Phillips made connections in the community for years at the Harbour supervised consumption site, SOLID programming and as a research partner at UVic. 

She was also a board member at the BC-Yukon  Association of Drug War Survivors. Last November, she helped her  half-brother, Scott Heffernan, enter recovery for substance use, he told Postmedia.

And she was instrumental to establishing  the burgeoning prescribed safe supply programs saving lives in Victoria,  said Felicella.

Colleagues say Phillips’ death is the  result of an insufficient response to the crisis, and one which relies  on peer workers who may be struggling themselves to help those also in  dire need of support.

It’s traumatic, “soul-crushing” work, said  Hawkfeather Peterson, an advocate for drug user rights and friend of  Phillips in an email. “Our leaders end up statistics for the exact thing  they fought so hard to save others from.”

A GoFundMe  to support counselling for Phillips’ daughters and their future  education and needs organized by Peterson has raised more than $10,000  of its $25,000 goal.

“It can feel like we are fodder being  willfully sacrificed so that governments can claim they are trying to  [stop] overdose deaths,” said Peterson. “Stable peers tend to relapse,  end up in extreme crisis, with no real help.”

Felicella and his wife became fast friends with the Phillips, who visited the Lower Mainland often with their children.

The parents would take the five young kids  between them to the park, the mall and the playground. It was healing  for Felicella and Phillips to give their children the childhood  experiences they hadn’t had.

She had told him she was struggling in  recent months, Felicella recalls. “A lot of the time we are good at  helping others and not really good at helping ourselves. The work  overshadows the other things.”

Her calm and quiet perseverance defined her  life and now her legacy, he said. Felicella hopes her daughters can one  day take comfort knowing their mother changed so much for the better  before her life was cut short.

“They’ll always think, ‘She was a person you could always count on, would always be there and would always fight.’”