‘A part of who I am’: Lisa Lapointe reflects on time as B.C. chief coroner

CHEK

When you ask B.C.’s chief coroner to synthesize her last decade of service, tragically, it’s easy.

“There’s no doubt that the toxic drug crisis has been the issue that has taken the most focus and energy of my 13 years,” Lisa Lapointe told CHEK News.

During her tenure from 2011 to 2024, Lapointe was front and centre as the voice for the hundreds of coroners across the province, sounding the alarm on the deadliest public health emergency in B.C. history.

“For us, it’s very personal. It’s seven human beings every day,” said Lapointe.

“It is very difficult to hear the grief of the families on a regular basis and the frustration that the coroners share with me, about why isn’t more being done? Why aren’t things changing on a significant level? Why are so many people still dying?

Since a public health emergency was announced in 2013, the number of those dying in B.C. due to toxic drugs has surged. Last year was the deadliest year ever recorded.

“I could have never imagined we would see this many people die without a massive response for death prevention,” said Lapointe. “In 2013, there were 60 deaths due to toxic drugs, on the Island as a whole, in 2023 there were 470 deaths.”

Champion for change

Over the past 13 years as chief coroner, Lapointe has become a champion for solutions.

The answer to the toxic drug supply for Lapointe is frustratingly simple: an overarching toxic drug plan approaching the crisis with a continuum of care from decriminalization to more detox and treatment beds, even non-prescribed safe supply, a topic that increasingly has become politicized.

“I do not believe that the distribution of incredibly toxic opiate drugs without the supervision of a medical professional in British Columbia is the way out of the toxic drug crisis,” Premier David Eby said on Thursday at a press conference.

“The safer supply recommendation acknowledges that up to 225,000 people are at risk every single day,” said Lapointe. “Let’s keep people alive until we can provide the other supports.”

With treatment and recovery infrastructure not readily available in B.C., Lapointe knows more people will continue to die without a safer supply.

‘It’s everywhere’

Addiction and illicit drug use, though very visible in pocketed areas like Pandora Avenue in Victoria and the east side of Vancouver, isn’t just a street subject.

“On the Island, we see Pandora Street, and we think that’s the epicentre, but even if we saved everyone on the downtown eastside…we’d still have 2100 deaths in our province,” said Lapointe.

“It’s everywhere. We just don’t see because the media doesn’t have access to the condos, the neighbourhoods, the suburbs, and the rural suburbs. But we, as coroners, see those. We’re going in there every day and picking up another seven bodies. And that’s graphic, but I hope people understand that those are human beings.”

Today, toxic drug overdose is the leading cause of death for people in B.C. aged 10-59.

Lapointe is leaving her post as chief coroner, hoping that regardless of those numbers, she made a difference.

One of the most gratifying moments on the job was when Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson relied heavily on B.C.’s death review panel when he granted a temporary injunction against the B.C. NDP government’s legislation banning all drug use in a wide range of public spaces, pausing the law three days before it was set to come into force.

After seeing the report, Hinkson was quoted as saying, “That is all the evidence I need. ”

Lasting legacy

“We say as coroners, we speak for the dead. I’ve tried to be their voice, to make a difference, so more people don’t die,” said Lapointe.

Lapointe says that after 30 years in public service,  it’s time for those with new ideas to take the helm. She says she’s proud to retire, knowing that the office remains trusted by the people it serves.

“People trust the work of the BC Coroners, and I’m really proud of that,” said Lapointe.

What’s next?

Lapointe says she plans to ease into retirement, relax, and spend some time with her three grandchildren before taking up some organizations who have reached out to work with her.

“I’ll have my extra cup of coffee and watch the world,” said Lapointe.

Her last wish is to have more people raising their voices against the toxic drug supply with her.

“Having been in public service for almost 30 years, having been in the coroner’s service for almost all that time, then this role for 13 years, it’s not just work,” she added.

“It’s become a part of who I am.”

Lapointe’s third term ends with her retirement on Feb. 18.

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