Advocates marched to city hall for overdose awareness on Wednesday, April 14, to mark five years since the province declared a public health emergency. Trevor Crawley photo.

Advocates march for overdose awareness as province marks five years of public health emergency

Advocates demanding action on the overdose crisis marched on city hall in Cranbrook, as B.C. marks the fifth year since the provincial government declared a public health emergency in response to mounting deaths attributed to illicit drug toxicity.

The march, organized by the East Kootenay Network of People Who Use Drugs (EKNPUD), chanted slogans demanding a safe supply and an end to the drug war, before gathering at city hall to hand-deliver a letter addressed to local politicians.

The letter, written by a drug user advocacy group, issued a call for an accessible safe supply of drugs and decriminalization, licensing and funding for compassion clubs involving substances such as heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine.

Patrick Evans, a EKNPUD representative, recited the letter to the crowd before dropping it off inside city hall.

“We’ve been living in the overdose crisis for five years now,” said Jessica Lamb, with EKNPUD. “Here in the East Kootenays, it’s in our backyard and people are dying at an alarming rate. In 2019, we had one overdose death and in 2020, we had 18 overdose deaths.

“This year it’s not looking any different, we’ve already had a couple overdose deaths in the community.”

Last year was the worst year on provincial record for overdose deaths at 1,716 attributed to illicit drug toxicity, according to the B.C. Coroners Service. In the East Kootenay, there were 18 overdose deaths — 10 in Cranbrook, with three in Fernie and three in Windermere.

“We’re just out here today trying to raise awareness and bring light to this issue because people who use drugs — our lives matter,” Lamb said. “We deserve access to health care and a safe supply and decriminalization and to be able to go to an overdose prevention site. We don’t have one of those in our community.”

By approaching city council, Lamb is hoping to garner further support for advocacy to higher levels of government.

“We hope that we get the support from city council,” Lamb said. “This is going to be a collaborative thing to really make some change and everybody needs to be on board.”

Provincially, the COVID-19 pandemic has compounded the crisis, as deaths have dramatically climbed amid an increasingly toxic illicit drug supply.

Over 2020, approximately 86 per cent of deaths attributed to illicit toxic drugs in B.C. included the presence of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid. Additionally 65 per cent of the deaths in 2020 also included the presence of carfentanil, which is much more potent and toxic than fentanyl, according to BC government statistics.

As advocates were marching on city hall, the provincial government announced the intention to request a federal exemption from Health Canada to decriminalize personal possession of drugs. A additional $45 million over three years is being invested towards overdose prevention services for people at high risk of overdose across the province, according to Shelia Malcomson, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is having devastating effects on people who use drugs – illicit substances are more toxic and people are struggling with increased isolation,” said Malcomson. “Today, our government is committing to sustain and enhance services in every health authority to prevent overdose deaths and connect people to supports. There’s more to come as we continue building the comprehensive system of mental health and addictions care that British Columbians deserve.”

Premier John Horgan, along with the provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, and Minister Malcomson also issued a joint statement marking the fifth year of the overdose crisis.

“British Columbia is the only province that has taken the important step to declare a public health emergency, despite this being a national crisis. We are working urgently to make complex, groundbreaking changes within B.C.’s health care system to evolve how we approach and treat people living with addictions.

“Changes of this scale take time, but we are working tirelessly to keep moving forward while saving as many lives as possible. We send our most heartfelt condolences to all those who are grieving today and every day. We won’t stop working until we build the comprehensive system of mental health and addictions care that people in British Columbia deserve.”

Since the public health emergency was declared by then-provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall in 2016, there have been over 7,000 deaths attributed to illicit drug toxicity overdoses.