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A former N.W.T. MLA lost his son to fentanyl. He wants to talk about it

Wally Schumann was shocked when he received the call. It was the Hay River RCMP who asked if he could meet her at his home.

“Out in the driveway, the RCMP officer had to tell me – you know, thank goodness – that our son had died and at that precise moment he didn’t know the details. He was only asked to do this.”

Schumann, a longtime resident of Hay River, NWT, and a former cabinet minister, had been on the phone with his son in one of their usual early-bird chats that morning.

CJ, who was 27, had called from Grande Prairie, Alta., to let his father know he was a day late after taking a friend south.

Schumann later checked his phone: the call had come in at 5:09 a.m. CJ was unresponsive around 8:30 a.m. He had died after taking fentanyl-laced cocaine.

“Something like this happens so quickly,” said Schumann.

Smiling man in University of Victoria hoodie.
CJ Schumann spent a year at the University of Victoria. (Submitted by Wally Schumann)

Schumann knew his son and friends smoked weed, but he was new to harder drugs.

“I had no idea he was just casually doing this because I’ve never seen it,” Schumann said, “and I was very close to my son, more so than most people, so…[it] took us completely by surprise when we got the call.”

Since then, Schumann says he’s had many conversations with people who’ve lost loved ones to deadly opioids, many of whom have been just as surprised as he was.

Now he wants to talk about it.

“Fentanyl is very prominent in our society and it’s killed a lot of people and it doesn’t hold back on who it kills.”

6 deaths in a year in a town of 3,200 people

CJ passed away just over a year ago, in December 2021. Since then, Hay River, a community of about 3,200 people, has suddenly found itself in the middle of Canada’s opioid crisis. On Jan. 24, health officials announced that the NWT had six opioid-related deaths in the past year — all in Hay River and most related to crack cocaine laced with fentanyl and carfentanil.

CJ was born in Hay River and attended school there through 8th grade before dropping out of school in BC. He spent a year at the University of Victoria before returning north for an apprenticeship in the parts department at Diavik Diamond Mine. When that was over, he returned to Vancouver with “a bunch of his friends” before taking a job at Ekati, another of the NWT’s diamond mines.

child with guitar.
CJ as a kid. (Submitted by Wally Schumann)

Schumann spent some time with some of these friends in Vancouver at a life celebration they were throwing for his son.

There, Schumann learned that one of the rules of the house CJ had shared was that if you’re buying any drugs, even marijuana — that’s not from a government source — you have to have a friend with you at all times and you had to have a naloxone have the kit with you.

“The day that happened to our son, he actually broke his own rule,” Schumann said, adding that “fentanyl is out there and they were aware of it.”

Schumann recently spent Christmas with the same friends at the house, where the rule still applies.

Despite the explicit acknowledgment of the dangers among CJ’s friends, Schumann is quick to say that opioid-related deaths are not limited to “heavy drug users.”

“This stuff touches all areas of life.”

“We need to address this”

In recent months, Schumann has spent time with other grieving families in his community. He was sad to miss a community meeting in December where people were discussing the problem of addiction and a toxic drug supply.

Like many others, he believes the community needs to come together to find solutions and come up with “some kind of plan that we can go ahead with.”

“This stuff is in our small communities,” he said, pointing to recent deaths in Mayo, Yukon, and a huge crack cocaine drug bust destined for Fort Good Hope, NWT

“As a society and as a country, we need to address this issue in a meaningful way, and I think this stuff needs to be talked about a lot more than we’re talking about it.”

Tall young man in sombrero, mother smiling.
CJ with his mother in an undated family photo. (Submitted by Wally Schumann)

Meanwhile, Schumann misses the early morning conversations he and CJ had before most people were even awake.

Though his grief is still open, the recent podcast on loss and grief produced by CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper comforted him. Schumann says this taught him he can still have a relationship with his prodigal son.

“He was a great kid and we will miss him for sure.”

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