Emergency crews were called to 120 suspected overdoses in Quesnel in 2019, according to BC Emergency Health Services.
In 2020, the community has already passed that number. In July alone, crews were called to 31 overdoses.
On Monday, Aug. 31, the Coalition of Substance Users of the North (CSUN) will be hosting an overdose awareness day, from 2 – 6 p.m., near the walking bridge in downtown Quesnel.
For Charlene Burmeister, the founder and executive director of CSUN, awareness isn’t enough. The annual event is a reminder of what could have been in the past year.
“For me, it’s another year of epic failures,” she said. “Every morning I wake up and wonder which one of my colleagues, friends or allies is now dead. I’ve been in the presence of my dead friends from overdose, I’ve had to reverse overdose.”
She draws on her own experiences with addictions to advocate for solutions.
“The issue is prohibition and the war on drugs which is really equated to a war on people,” she said. “This is why we are where we are today – because of prohibition. And we saw much of the same in prohibition around alcohol.”
Burmeister compared current street drugs cut with stronger drugs like fentanyl, to stronger alcohol that was sold during prohibition to be watered down.
“I am just dumbfounded that we as a population, for the most part, truly feel that drugs are bad and the people that use drugs are bad. The ideology is just insane.”
Statistics Canada releases a survey on drug use every two years. While a 2019 report is yet to be released, the 2017 survey reported 15 per cent of Canadians admitted to using illegal drugs.
Burmeister agrees that overdose numbers are going up, noting that some overdoses are not reported.
“Everybody is at risk in this overdose crisis, no matter what substance they’re consuming,” she said. “Decriminalization and access to safe supply is a human rights issue. The present inertia of the overdose crisis, as far as I’m concerned, is government supported genocide.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has played a role, both in disrupting the distribution of traditional drugs and isolating people away from support.
“We know the opposite of addiction is connection,” Burmeister said. “There’s a lot of problematic stuff that is arising in the face of COVID-19. The landscape is changing and not for the better.”
Burmeister called herself cautiously optimistic at every step of her life.
“The motivation to do the work is clear and present finally,” she said. “There is a bit of light at the end of our tunnel as far as Northern Health’s response to this current crisis.”
While Burmiester finds some reason for celebration, the annual awareness day event is a sad event.
The event itself will also have COVID-19 precautions, including hand sanitizer and markings to ensure physical distancing.
The overdose awareness day event will have an open mic, naloxone education and a mock overdose event.
The event will feature a memorial flower drop just after 5 p.m. on the walking bridge.
Burmiester hopes the event will spur some tangible change.
“You talk, we die,” she said.
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