Community advocates marked International Overdose Awareness Day at Operation Street Angel on Wednesday, Aug. 31. Trevor Crawley photo.

Community advocates mark International Overdose Awareness Day

Stories of loss, hope and resilience were shared by those whose lives had been impacted by the toxic drug crisis, as the community gathered at Operation Street Angel on Wednesday to mark International Overdose Awareness Day.

Through an open mic, people memorialized those who have died from drug poisoning, while also pleading for compassion and understanding for people who use drugs — particularly for Indigenous communities, which are over-represented in toxic drug deaths.

Jared Basil, with the Ktunaxa Nation, delivered a powerful message, contextualizing Indigenous inter-generational trauma caused by colonization and structural racism while also recognizing that trauma crosses all racial, class, and religious boundaries.

“We’re categorized and marginalized as individuals,” said Basil. “And so, when we talk about traumatic experiences and we’re able to shed light on the Indigenous over-representation, I think it’s really important to recognize that, again, trauma affects everybody the same. Somebody’s mother, somebody’s father, somebody’s brother, somebody’s sister, somebody’s friend, somebody’s’s lover.

“And these are people that are being forgotten about on the streets, these are the people that are being forgotten about because society taught us stigma around substance use.”

In 2016, B.C. declared a public health emergency in response to the toxic drug crisis. Since that declaration, 1,327 First Nations people have died, according to the latest update issued by the First Nations Health Authority that includes data up to April 2022.

Shining a light on overdose awareness and substance use isn’t about shaming or pointing fingers, said Basil.

“We’re here to let people know they are not alone,” Basil said. “We’re here to let people that no matter what’s going on in your life, there’s a unified level of services here in the Cranbrook area and in the region that are willing to put differences aside because we understand that trauma affects everybody.

“And that these causalities, and the reasons that people suffer and the reasons that people choose sometimes to live on the streets and choose to segregate themselves from society, is because society has done a really good job on turning the cheek when it’s been asked. Society has done a really good job at getting distracted when it’s been given an opportunity.”

Other speakers also shared their experiences and perspectives, including Katiecia Jimmy, who talked about stigma faced by youth who use substances and the effects of shaming and isolation by family and friends.

A vigil ceremony closed out the event.

The awareness event was a partnership between ANKORS East Kootenay, Operation Street Angel and East Kootenay Network of People Who Use Drugs (EK NPUD), along with Cranbrook Community Action Team and the Ktunaxa Nation Social Investment Sector.

No elected officials were present, however, Lynnette Wray and Jeremy Youngward — both of whom are vying for city council seats — were in attendance.

A call for action

Protesters marched to city hall advocating action for a safe supply of drugs in response to the worsening toxic drug crisis that has claimed 10,000 lives since B.C. declared a public health emergency six years ago.

Organized by the East Kootenay Network of People Who Use Drugs (EKNPUD), advocates converged at city hall demanding support from local elected officials to reformulate drug policy while marking International Drug Poisoning Awareness Day.

Protesters advocated that government work alongside those with lived and living experience to formulate drug policy, while also demanding support for repealing the federal Controlled Substance Use Act, and expanding access to safe supply programs.

“There needs to be more meaningful engagement for people who use drugs and we need to dismantle the stigma around substance use and we need decriminalization,” said Jessica Lamb, a co-founder of EKNPUD, outside city hall.

A group of approximately two dozen people participated in the march, which routed down Baker St. before heading to city hall along 10th Ave.

Since a public health emergency was declared six years ago in response to the toxic drug crisis, over 10,000 people have died, at a rate of at least four deaths per day.

“If these numbers were happening for COVID, we’d be seeing drug policy changing overnight,” Lamb said.

As a megaphone was passed around the crowd, Polly Sutherland, team lead at ANKORS in Cranbrook, also spoke about the heavy toll that 24 deaths due to toxic drugs in the last two years has taken on the community.

When asked how many people had lost friends or loved ones to the crisis, a majority of hands went up in the air.

“We need the public to join us and understand,” Sutherland said. “If this was dogs dying, if there were 24 dogs that had died since 2021, this town would be in uproar, and it’s not.

“We’re alone here. We need Cranbrook people to join us to end stigma and understand our plight, and understand that people who use drugs are our community members.”

Local elected officials, including Mayor Lee Pratt, city councillors, and Kootenay-Columbia MP Rob Morrison, were roundly criticized for not attending the event and meeting with the group.

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