Dozens of ‘Black Balloons’ on display to raise awareness of overdose deaths

Dozens of cards with black balloons on them now line a stretch of Churchill Drive in Winnipeg, between the St. Vital Bridge and Daly Street South.

Volunteers with Overdose Awareness Manitoba were tying the cards to trees along the walking path there Saturday afternoon.

Each balloon represents a person who lost their life to drug use in the first six months of 2020, though final numbers for the year are currently not known.

“Sometimes we hear a number — we’re just trying to show how big that number is,” said Rebecca Rummery with Overdose Awareness Manitoba.

“What we’re here to do is just bring awareness and to show all these kids’ faces that we have lost, and to really humanize the issue of overdose and know that they are somebody’s someone.”

Rebecca Rummery co-founded Overdose Awareness Manitoba after losing her boyfriend to an overdose in 2018. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Numbers given to CBC News by the province’s chief medical examiner in December showed there were 138 drug-related deaths in the first six months of 2020. In all of 2019, there were 191 drug-related deaths, and 187 deaths were reported in 2018.

The balloons were placed on Saturday ahead of Black Balloon Day, which is on March 6. The event was started in the United States as a way to raise awareness of overdose deaths, and it has been held in Manitoba for the last three years, Rummery said. 

The group uses cards with pictures of black balloons on them, instead of actual balloons, to be more environmentally friendly.

Rummery says while 44 of the cards bear the names and pictures of some of those who died, many have been left blank. People are welcome to write the names of their loved ones on a balloon, she said.

“It is shame and the stigma that keep a lot of people hiding and we don’t have enough resources in our city, so when people want help they’re not able to get it,” she said.

‘Addiction doesn’t discriminate’

Jody Wasserman tied a photo of her brother, Josh Zeller, onto one of the trees. Zeller died of an overdose two years ago at the age of 36.

Wasserman says more help is needed for people like her brother who are battling drug addictions.

“He struggled for many, many years and in the last year or so of his life he was really trying to get help, and help is not readily available. He died on a wait list,” she said.

“If there was treatment available, I believe he would still be here, and if there wasn’t that stigma there I think he would have asked for help sooner.”

Jody Wasserman’s brother, Josh Zeller, died of an overdose two years ago. He was 36. Wasserman says more help is needed for those battling drug addictions. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Wasserman described her brother as a loving father of two, a talented carpenter and an animal lover. 

“He was so much more than his struggles and I just want people to see that,” she said.

“Addiction doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t matter where you live or how much money you have, it could happen to you.”

She said the Black Balloon Day event helps put faces to numbers when it comes to overdose deaths.

“They struggle, but we all struggle with something, and right now there’s such a stigma around their struggles that they are ashamed and they don’t ask for help and they die because of that, and that is so wrong.”

Rummery says people who want to get involved can display a black balloon at their home or business. She said she hopes policy makers will pay attention and get to know the families and their stories. The group would like to see more resources for addictions treatment as well as the decriminalization of drug possession.

Events like this one do help bring the issue out into the open, Rummery said.

“It is changing the stigma and it is changing people’s impressions, and that’s why we do these events.”