On the same day that the BC Coroners Service announced that more than 1,000 British Columbians have died of drug poisonings so far this year, people in Port Alberni marked the International Day of Overdose Awareness by hanging purple ribbons up around town.
Port Alberni’s Community Action Team (CAT) coordinated with Moms Stop the Harm on Aug. 31 to draw chalk silhouettes on the sidewalks outside of Port Alberni City Hall and the local courthouse. The silhouettes were labelled with the names and ages of some of the people in B.C. lost to drug poisonings so far this year.
This was a way of humanizing the victims of the opioid crisis that’s often hidden in secret, said CAT co-chair Ellen Frood.
“We’re bringing the names out here,” said Frood.
Volunteers also handed out ice cream on Fourth Avenue (with help from the Salvation Army, Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council and KUU-US Crisis Line Society) and tied purple ribbons onto sign posts around the community.
“If anything comes of this, it would be awareness,” said CAT co-chair Ron Merk. “We want to start a dialogue and get people to talk.”
On Central Vancouver Island alone (Tofino to Parksville, Duncan to Courtenay, excluding numbers from Nanaimo), there have been 31 deaths from toxic drugs so far this year. This number is presented in a window display in the Coulson building on Third Avenue.
An increase in illicit drug toxicity deaths led to B.C. declaring a public health emergency in 2016. The CAT was formed shortly afterwards to spearhead coordination and communication to respond to the needs of those most at risk of overdose in their communities.
Port Alberni’s Community Action Team is formed around four pillars: harm reduction, engagement and networking, social stabilization and stigma reduction.
Stigma is one of the reasons that many people are moving away from the word “overdose” and using the term “drug toxicity” instead.
“Language is very important to us,” said Merk. “The point is to take the stigma out of it. It’s a health issue.”
“We don’t want to label people,” said Frood. “The answer is awareness, accountability, changing our attitudes. It’s about supporting people.”
Port Alberni’s CAT is made up of representatives from all walks of life, representing different community groups and services. The CAT also includes people with lived experience, or people with first-hand experience with substance use challenges.
“Their lived experience is how we learn,” said Frood. “There is trauma behind every single person with a substance use disorder.”
Some of this stems from prescription pain relief, but Merk said for most people who use illicit substances, that trauma stems from childhood.
According to the BC Coroners Service, more than 80 percent of drug toxicity deaths across the province so far this year have been in private or other indoor residences. Roughly 80 percent of fatalities have been men, and the majority of fatalities have been in people aged 30 to 59. No deaths have been reported at supervised consumption or overdose prevention sites.
Merk said there is a stereotype about people with substance use disorders, but in reality, the people who are dying from drug poisonings come from “all walks of life.”
“It’s blue collar guys, it’s people that work every day,” said Merk. “It’s fathers and it’s mothers.”