An emotional gathering at ʔaq’am marked International Overdose Awareness Day, as community members and advocates came together to grieve and heal as the toxic drug crisis continues to devastate lives, families and communities across the province.
Ktunaxa voices pierced the air as prayers and drumming echoed in the ʔaq’am Arbour to open the ceremony. Those gathered then walked to the St. Mary’s River bridge and back, ending the occasion with a candlelight vigil, a moment of silence and a community lunch.
The walk to the bridge was particularly poignant, as purple ribbons — a symbol marking overdose awareness — were tied to the railings, fluttering in the breeze as the sound of running water flowed underneath.
The significance of visible purple ribbons tied to the bridge, which is utilized daily ʔaq’am residents, was not lost on Nasuʔkin (Chief) Joe Pierre Jr.
“The idea of using the bridge to tie those ribbons was a good idea,” said Pierre, “and then it became very special for me when we finally got to the bridge today and I had my ribbon, I was right at about the mid-point of the bridge — right over top of the water — and for me, just the river and the water, the idea of cleansing kind of came to me right away, so it just became very meaningful for me.
“That’s what helped me and my heart today was just being at the river and watching the water and thinking about some of those folks who have passed away recently.”
Pierre acknowledged the impact that the toxic drug crisis has had on the community, particularly in the last 12 months, as several families are grieving recent losses of loved ones.
“It’s multifaceted in the way that it’s been impacting the community,” Pierre said. “First and foremost, just because of the number of folks that we’ve lost to overdose in this past year, it has literally put the entire community of ʔaq’am in a state of mourning that we’re not getting any relief from.
“Mourning takes time and the mourning process for every one is so different, but I think the common denominator for people is time. And that’s the kind of thing that has been interrupted in our community is that time hasn’t been allowed for some of our families because another person has passed away and so now you’ve got to kind of transition your family to thinking about those folks when maybe you haven’t even properly gone through the mourning processes yourself for your own family member.”
The scope of the toxic drug crisis across the province is staggering.
The B.C. Coroners Service reported 2,384 fatal overdose deaths in 2022 — the worst on record — while this year is on pace to surpass last year’s grim total. However, First Nations are disproportionately represented; while First Nations represent 3.3 per cent of the population in the province, they represent 16.4 per cent of toxic drug poisonings deaths, according to First Nations Health Authority data.
Since the B.C. Government declared the crisis a public health emergency in 2016, over 12,000 lives have been claimed by the poisoned illicit drug supply.
Jennifer Whiteside, the Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, issued a statement marking the day, while extolling the government’s progress on mental health supports for youth, such as the foundry centres, where youth aged 12-24 can receive mental health and addiction support in a safe, judgement-free space.
A Foundry centre in Cranbrook is currently under construction.
Dr. Bonnie Henry, the province’s top medical officer, also pointed to B.C.’s recent exemption under the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act that decriminalized possession of small amounts of illicit substances as a way to combat stigma.
“We must recognize that recovery is a journey and that every person’s journey is different,” said Dr. Henry, in a statement. “That recovery is not defined by absolute measures such as abstinence from all drugs, but is a process of change through which people improve their health and wellness, have the same opportunities as others to live self-determined lives and strive in their own unique way to reach their full potential.”
Pierre also noted there will never be a single simple solution to solving the crisis.
“I think that there are folks who are hoping there is a magic wand somewhere, but I don’t believe that there is,” Pierre said. “It’s a very large problem that we are all dealing with and there are so many different aspects to it. I think maybe the magic wand might be somewhere in the practice of listening to one and other.
“Like really listening to one and other and what someone might be trying to say to you and understanding that maybe this person is trying to warn me, or maybe this person is trying to help me, or maybe this person is really concerned about themselves or their friends and they’re reaching out for help.”