Heartbreak to hope: Northern MLA on $1.5 billion addictions plan

Written By Rob Shaw

“I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been phoned by police or the hospital to say, ‘Your son is in emergency.’”

Mike Bernier

BC Liberal Leader Kevin Falcon drew several rounds of applause as he was unveiling his $1.5 billion plan to boost addictions treatment this week. But perhaps nobody was clapping louder than Mike Bernier, who stood off to the side at the press conference in New Westminster Thursday, struggling to keep his emotions in check.

For more than 20 years, Bernier’s oldest son Niel has been using drugs on the street. The 35-year-old’s mental health and addictions challenges have been profound. In the last two years, Niel’s life has been saved by Naloxone three times. 

“I gave Kevin a big hug because I was so emotional,” Bernier said of the BC Liberal addictions plan to boost beds, eliminate fees and remove wait times for treatment facilities.

“When the stars align and you’ve got someone passionate about wanting to fix this, and your team agrees with you, and your leader wants to show leadership on it because it’s the right thing to do — it puts a nice spark in you.”

Niel’s journey

Bernier has rarely spoken publicly about his son’s addiction, but Niel’s journey has been a constant throughout Bernier’s high-profile political career as mayor of Dawson Creek, cabinet minister in the BC Liberal government and, most recently, Opposition critic. 

“Within eight hours [of overdosing], he’s released out of the hospital … and back on the streets.”

Mike Bernier

“I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been phoned by police or the hospital to say your son is in emergency,” said Bernier, the MLA for Peace River South.

“As a parent that’s been going through this, there’s been times I’ve said, ‘I can’t take your call anymore because I can’t help you and you aren’t helping yourself.'”

“I’m just one of thousands of families in the province going through this situation,” says Peace River South MLA Mike Bernier. [Photo Chad Hipolito]

Virtually everyone in Dawson Creek knows Bernier, and most know about Niel living on the streets too. It’s a small town, and Bernier hears from people who’ve seen his son using, high, living rough, or in distress. 

“There’s some days he’ll phone me and say hey dad, just so you know, it’s going to be on social media later because I ran into some problems,” said Bernier.

They’ve tried everything

“There’s no secrets here. Everybody in Dawson Creek knows when they see him walking around or sitting on a park bench: Hey that’s Mike Bernier’s kid there.”

Bernier and his wife have tried everything, from bringing Niel back home, to countless stays in treatment, to even a stint in foster care when he was younger and his violent tendencies posed a risk to his four siblings.

“[We’ve] tried to keep him clean, but it only lasts for so long.”

Mike Bernier

“We’ve tried at home where we’ve taken him and put him in the basement and tried to keep him clean, but it only lasts so long,” said Bernier.

“He’s the perfect example of someone who has both mental health and addictions, so as soon as he’s clean for awhile, his mental health challenges show up and there’s no support there.”

Niel is diagnosed as a sociopath with psychotic tendencies, and on the street he’s taken to using both meth and heroin. 

Critical shortage in North

His story highlights the critical shortage of both addictions and mental health facilities in B.C.’s North, where basic services like visits from a psychologist often involve flying someone in, and where beds are few and far between.

“Three months ago was the last time I got the call [Niel] was in the psych ward,” said Bernier.

“He had overdosed… and within eight hours, he’s released out of the hospital and they say, ‘Well it’s not an addictions facility, and it’s not detox, and we can’t hold him for psychological reasons.’ And he’s back out on the streets.

“Then I was with him when he said, ‘Dad, I’m done, I can’t keep doing this, I’ve got a son I never get to see and a family that doesn’t want to be around me when I’m like this. I need to get better.’

“So we made some calls to get him into detox. The closest detox bed was one in Prince George, and it was a wait of seven-and-a-half weeks before I could get him into that bed.

“Two days later, he was back using on the streets, because he needed help that day. He keeps telling me, the life of an addict is right now when you need help.”

“We need to provide all the supports people need to overcome addiction.”

Kevin Falcon

Bernier is not the only high-profile B.C. politician to have a child suffer an addictions crisis. Former NDP deputy premier Carole James shared the story of her son Evan’s alcohol addiction and recovery several years ago. Bernier credited James for being a quiet resource and support for him at the legislature, even though they worked for opposite parties.

Bernier shared Niel’s story with Falcon, and said the solutions proposed by the party are exactly the kind of thing that would have helped his son.

The BC Liberal plan includes waiving fees for treatment beds and paying for private facilities if nearby spaces are full so that people aren’t turned away. 

‘They need it immediately’

“When people want treatment, when people seek that moment, where they’re looking for help, they need it immediately,” said Falcon.

“We must do everything possible to make that a reality for those that are struggling. And instead of perpetuating a seemingly endless debate between harm reduction versus recovery, we need to provide all the supports that people need to overcome addiction.”

The $1.5 billion plan will build “an accessible, no-cost, recovery-oriented system of care for anyone struggling with addiction issues,” says BC Liberal Leader Kevin Falcon (seen here in September). [Photo UBCM]

Falcon called the plan a “radical shift” intended to complement the government’s safe supply and decriminalization efforts. He said he supports both of those harm reduction measures to save lives, but they must be accompanied by treatment to actually get people off drugs, into recovery, when they are ready.

The plan also includes limited use of involuntary treatment for youth and adults at risk of harming themselves or others.

“There are some folks that I believe we have a moral obligation to society to help,” Falcon said. “People who are incapable, at that moment, of having the agency to help themselves.”

Bernier said he particularly endorses creating recovery communities in areas like the North and Interior, and expanding healing centres used in the Lower Mainland to other parts of the province to help families like his.

“This is not just about the horrible situation we’re seeing in the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver,” he said.

“This is people’s basements in Dawson Creek. This is people in Prince Rupert. Everywhere in the province, obviously with a different scope, but the pain and reality and struggles are the same everywhere around the province.”