Seated at the kitchen table overlooking his tidy Oak Bay back yard, Ed Walker maintains his composure right up to the moment he starts talking about Dec. 13.
Before then, he recalls his grandson Joe as a happy, talented boy who grew into an accomplished young man.
“Joe was an excellent student. He was one of those people who could do whatever he set his mind to,” Ed says.
As a child, Joe was once third in the province in chess, despite being self-taught. He was also an avid boxer.
“He always had a smile on his face,” says Joe’s grandmother Barbara, reaching for a framed photograph of Joe on the table.
When he was 14 or 15, Joe showed up at his grandparents’ house in Oak Bay one day with an electric guitar. Joe practiced a little but told his grandfather the chords were hard, so Ed sat him down at the piano to show him how chords work.
“The next week he came over with an acoustic guitar and played Bach,” Ed says, smiling with pride.
The Walkers’ grandson Joe – Joseph Wijohn-Walker – also struggled with addiction from a young age.
“Joe was addicted from the very first time he tried something at 14,” Ed says.
Then they got the call they hoped would never come. On Dec. 13, a Saanich police officer contacted the Walkers.
“When I got the call from the police to go to Janice’s I knew what it was,” Ed says, a small waver to his voice as tears threaten. “Once this fentanyl hit the street, I knew if he continued to use, that would be what would happen.”
He went to console Joe’s mother, his daughter Janice, then spent the remainder of the day driving around Greater Victoria, breaking the hearts of family members, telling each one of them himself.
“I couldn’t do it by phone.”
Joe was 25 when he lost his battle with addiction. His body was discovered 11 days before Christmas on an Oak Bay construction site. The emotional impact of the young man’s death extends to family in Alberta and Ontario.
It wasn’t a surprise to the family that meth and fentanyl were found in his blood, Ed says.
“He was in and out of treatment and he wanted to break it. He tried so hard.”
Joe got clean, finished high school and always had work in scaffolding.
“He was always kind of hoping he would get an apprenticeship but of course his habit got in the way.”
Joe lived with his grandparents in Oak Bay for a while, as the family helped him fight his addictions.
“He said he was going to beat it in 2017,” Ed says. “He knew he wanted to but couldn’t achieve it. I don’t know what would have made the difference, but it doesn’t matter now.”
The Walkers say they didn’t really talk about Joe’s decade-long battle with drugs while they were in the thick of it, but counselled by friends to talk about it, Ed and Barbara opened up and began sharing their story.
“We didn’t talk about it, it was always an in-family topic,” Ed says. “It’s astounded me once the ice is broken, people open up.”
They learned more people than they dreamed of understand the struggle.
“The treatment that is available is just a token,” Ed says. As a juvenile, Joe’s treatment was seven or eight days long. Someone has to be clean to get into treatment, then there’s the wait for a space.
“People with addictions should never be able to walk away. They should always been overseen, kindly and nicely, they need mentoring, and not just by family,” Barbara says.
Both agree there simply aren’t enough resources to go around.
“We see it downtown and we see it on Pandora but it’s, ‘those people down there,’” says Ed. “All those people have families somewhere. They all have somebody who wants them to get better.”
Joe loved kids and dogs and “would have made such a wonderful father,” Ed says. “He was a happy person, when he was clean.”
Barbara remembers her grandson’s smile and the way he loved to have a dog in his lap.
“His smile,” she repeats. “Embracing those dogs. The smile on his face.”