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Quesnel Hometown Hero: Charlene Burmeister

Drug user and community healer wants drug policies revamped

No one understands what drug users need for supports and help than people who use drugs.

One of Quesnel’s leading advocates for healing from drug use and for public understanding of drug use is calling on community connections to grow stronger, with International Overdose Awareness Day on the horizon. She works for the BC Centre For Disease Control (BCCDC) as a stakeholder engagement lead, and also founded the not-for-profit agency Coalition of Substance Users in the North (CSUN).

“Between the two, she has an immense workload that requires working more than 80 hours per week,” said the BCCDC in a statement about her work. “When Charlene Burmeister was first introduced to harm reduction in 2010, she was amazed by how much work still needed to be done to support people. What started as a peer coordinator role supporting other people with lived and living experience with substances, quickly evolved into Charlene’s life mission. Charlene is currently a person with lived and living experience. Her passion for her work is evident in her strong work ethic.”

That’s right, Burmeister is still using drugs. She wants people to know that drug use does not mean someone has sunk to the so-called dregs of society, the people on the street, the seemingly lost population who are in the deepest throes of addiction.

Those people are not all lost at all, and drugs are used on a regular basis by a lot of people in the Quesnel community who carry on with their jobs and their families. When policies and practices are developed, or just when people at the local water cooler talk about these issues, she hopes for much more acceptance of those facts.

“I have been homeless, I have lived in a car, I have stolen food from convenience stores, but today I am so privileged and I know that,” Burmeister said.

While she has learned and grown and healed and become a better person through education and experience, she laments that the governments and even general populations that frame our society have not done the same. Her advocacy work now is largely in response to changes being made fatally slowly.

She points to the body count due to the opioid crisis as all the evidence one needs to know B.C.’s drug policies - if and where they exist - are largely ineffective or even counter-effective. Last year, BC Emergency Health Services (BCEHS) announced that their staff responded to 160 overdose calls in Quesnel. Williams Lake had 162, 100 Mile House had 30, Prince George had 1,466. Those were just the officially reported ones.

On a provincewide basis, BCEHS set a new record on June 21, this year, with 221 overdose calls in that one day. The previous record was 205 set in March of this year. British Columbia is averaging more than 100 calls per day.

According to the BC Coroner Service, there were 184 deaths in the month of June alone that are suspected to be due to unregulated drugs. The BCCS numbers indicate that since a public health emergency was declared in 2016, the B.C. death toll has been 12,264.

On a national scale, Health Canada’s data indicates that in 2022, an average of 20 people per day died from unregulated drug overdoses, and since 2016, 32,000 Canadians have died from this epidemic.

That’s more than Alzheimer’s disease during the demographic babyboomer bubble, more than homicide and suicide combined, more than the flu and pneumonia combined, and equal to diabetes which is ranked as Canada’s seventh highest cause of death, according to Statistics Canada’s leading causes of death chart.

“The evidence shows we are not lessening but actually heightening,” said Burmeister.

So if the old saw goes “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” what should be said about a situation that is distinctly broken but not getting fixed?

“Public opinion is really influencing political decision makers,” and public opinion is usually fuelled by ill-informed dialogue not science-confirmed fact. “That fuels deaths,” Burmeister said. “People who use drugs are treated like they are disposable because many people think that if you use drugs, you’re that population who ripped your grandma off, or stole your work supplies, or doing sex trade work and spreading disease. Many people (in regular mainstream society) use drugs.”

Burmeister pointed out the lack of consultation with active or past drug users, when making policies or planning infrastructure. Who better than experienced people should be consulted over how to design health supports, prevention plans, emergency responses, and effective treatment? But they would say there needs to be treatment facilities at the ready, a safe drug supply instead of the one on offer now from organized crime, supports for harm reduction workers and other costly and anti-abstinence ideas.

But abstinence in the drug world is as unrealistic as abstinence in the sex or sugary foods or greenhouse gas emission vehicles worlds, advocates point out, and what is the cost to businesses and taxpayers and families of not trying this new approach? Could it be worse than what’s going on now?

“Our policies are rooted in racism, and there is ample proof that it is not working, this failed war on drugs. It’s ridiculous,” she said. “It’s about educating the public and encouraging people to think deeper. We need to learn, but we also need to unlearn. Challenge ourselves to think about where our beliefs come from, and do they make sense? That education part is really important to me.”

The education part is forefront on International Overdose Awareness Day coming up on Aug. 31. Also high on that day’s agenda is allowing space for people to grieve over the many loved ones who have been lost to alienation or death. In Quesnel, an agenda of special events and information opportunities will happen from 12 noon to 4 p.m. in Lhtako Dene Park. There will be food, topical conversation, and a time of remembrance.

READ MORE: CSUN advocates for safe supply, decriminalization, less stigma

READ MORE: Episodic overdose prevention services available in Quesnel

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