The number of illicit drug overdose deaths in the Northern Health Authority increased from a total of six in 2008 to 56 so far in 2018, according to the latest BC Coroners Service report.
There were more than 130 overdose deaths province-wide in July 2018. The deaths mark a 12-per-cent increase over the same month last year, and a 25-per-cent uptick from June. It equates to four deaths per day.
While numbers specific to Quesnel are difficult to obtain, since the Coroners Service maintains statistics by health authority, Melanie MacDonald, executive director at Seasons House, said her count in the last two years is up to 14.
“I know of 14 people we’ve lost to overdose. The thing is, all are not counted as Quesnel deaths [in the statistics], as some of them may have happened in Prince George, or people may have passed away somewhere else. They are not all considered Quesnel deaths because they didn’t pass away here. But they were Quesnel people,” said MacDonald.
Aug. 31 is International Overdose Awareness Day, and an event is being organized to offer education on overdose, as well as support to those who may have lost a friend or family member to overdose.
The event will take place at the Front Street entrance to the Fraser River Footbridge from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and Community Health Nursing will have a table set up offering information on overdose prevention and resources in the community.
They’ll also be doing naloxone training and distributing kits. Naloxone is a medication used to block the effects of opioids, and the kits available are small enough to fit in the glove box of a car.
MacDonald said there will be a moment of silence to remember local people who have been lost to overdose, and there will be an opportunity for family members and friends to speak if they choose.
Also taking a turn at the podium will be local peer support workers. These are people with past or present lived experience with substance use who work in the community and advocate for change in policies surrounding harm reduction.
Charlene Burmeister is the founder and president of the Coalition of Substance Users of the North (CSUN), a peer-based organization in Quesnel. She started the group in April 2017 and so far has 11 peers who work together for change.
Burmeister has worked as a provincial peer co-ordinator for almost 10 years, and also works for the First Nations Health Authority and the BC Centre for Disease Control.
“I recognized there were no drug-user or peer-based organizations in the north. And we see great value from peers engaging in the work that is involved. We recognize how important it is to have people with past or present lived experience involved in the unfortunate overdose crisis we are faced with,” she said.
Burmeister acquired a small pocket of funding to get started and said she has since gained more.
Peer members act as representatives for the north at tables with government agencies and policy makers, and Burmeister said they engage at local, provincial and national levels.
“Some are actively using but not everybody is, but all have great value in the work that we do,” said Burmeister, and the statement is an important part of the foundation of CSUN.
Locally, the peers advocate for and support drug users in what Burmeister calls “a path to hope.”
“People often don’t see the value in themselves and identify as their behaviours first. Language is a big thing we try to change to reduce stigma and discrimination, which is part of what feeds into the present crisis,” she explained.
“If people are not alive, they have no hope. Meeting people where they are at and supporting them in whatever is going on with them at that time is the most important thing, and that’s what I advocate for and try to help other peers to understand.”
Burmeister stressed that the aim of CSUN is not to help people get off drugs, but to support them in whatever path they are on.
“If people are looking for treatment on an abstinence-based approach, we support them, and we also support people no matter where they are in their journey, whether they are using or not.
“Treatment and abstinence-based approaches are sometimes the only way for people, but it’s important to recognize that pushing people to abstinence is not always effective. Sometimes people use substances for reasons people can’t always identify with,” she explained, saying there can be barriers for substance users who seek help from Mental Health and Addiction Services.
“Abstinence and working toward abstinence is not our goal. That’s a personal goal.”
Burmeister hopes that more funding will be given to peer-based organizations as more and more agencies throughout the province begin to recognize that peers have value. She envisions CSUN one day having its own space with a safe consumption site, harm reduction supplies and space to host Narcotics or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
For now, the group meets around once or twice a month, along with a community expert who keeps the peers in the loop about those who may be at risk. They work on initiatives like International Overdose Awareness Day and vote and decide on who is the best representative from the group to act for the north at various events they are invited to.
They are also helping to organize an event entitled “Building a Compassionate Approach: Substance Use, Harm Reduction and the Public Health Emergency,” which is open to all and will take place Sept. 5-6 in Quesnel, with two days of expert speakers and workshops.
Burmeister also said she hopes peers will one day have access to counselling services and other resources offered to other front-line workers who encounter overdose deaths.
Sarah Blyth, executive director of the Overdose Prevention Society, told Black Press in a recent interview that peer volunteers are often the first people on the scene, reviving drug users with naloxone and other emergency measures.
“They’re the unsung heroes for sure in this crisis,” she said.
Overdose Awareness Day will be an important event to help the community understand that overdose deaths are preventable, said Burmeister.
“We think it’s important that our community recognize these are preventable deaths. It’s important for people to have a visual, because we don’t always recognize the loss in our community,” she said, adding that Quesnel has recently suffered a few overdose deaths.
“It’s about education. If you challenge people to think about it and educate themselves, you can’t deny the obvious,” she said, also noting: “We are systemically programmed to think that anyone who is using is bad, and we need to recognize that is not the case. Amazing people are doing amazing things.”
For those with negative comments, Burmeister said she tries to challenge their perspectives; but ultimately, she’s not interested in arguing with someone who is set in their beliefs.
“I will not spend time and energy trying to change peoples’ views. I just do the work that I do, because I know what it means.”