Drug policy advocacy groups are coming together across Vancouver on August 31 to mark International Overdose Awareness Day (IOAD).
Earlier this week, the BC Coroners Service reported that 198 British Columbians died from unregulated drugs in July. The 1,455 people who have died in the first seven months of the year are the most on-record, with no signs of slowing down.
Brittany Graham, executive director of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), says that while VANDU has put on an annual event for at least the past decade, this year has been especially difficult.
“This year particularly has been really hard for WAHRS [West Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society] and for VANDU,” she says. “Quite a few people who were in leadership positions, people who were long-time drug user policy advocates and harm reduction knowledge keepers and leaders—the drug toxicity, even when they did everything they possibly could to protect themselves, still was too much.”
The plan for this year’s VANDU event, put on in collaboration with WAHRS and the Coalition of Peers Dismantling the Drug War (CPDDW), has three parts. It begins with a march from VANDU’s headquarters at 1pm that heads over to Oppenheimer Park, followed by a blanketing ceremony to commemorate people who have died during the ongoing public health crisis, and wraps up with a barbecue and celebration of resilience between 3pm and 6pm.
“I think it’ll be nice to be with other people in our community who understand that feeling of loss, and that feeling of frustration relating to some levels of inaction from all levels of government, and then all the right-wing political scrutiny and stigma and discrimination [that] has been coming towards people who use drugs,” Graham reflects.
On the other side of town, Moms Stop The Harm (MSTH) are hosting an event at Kitsilano Beach that begins at 11am by the tennis courts.
“One of our goals in Vancouver this year was to highlight the faces, the ‘people factor,’ of the many we have lost,” says Deb Bailey, a Vancouver member of MSTH. “This IOAD, we wanted to point out that the people we are losing are ‘us’—our sons and daughters and fathers and mothers.”
Participants are invited to attach bike locks to a moveable memorial to commemorate loved ones who have passed away, and to tie purple ribbons with photos around posts and trees. There is also a memorial labyrinth, “Tu me manques,” filled with photos of people who have been killed by toxic drugs. Starting at 2pm, there will be speakers commemorating their loved ones and calling for change.
“I lost my daughter Ola, aged 21, eight years ago, at the beginning of the crisis. It is unbelievable to me that we are still losing people and that the number of deaths is not decreasing,” says Bailey. “The overdose crisis is often presented as a DTES problem. It is a bit of an illusion—or delusion. We are losing people all over Vancouver.”
Both VANDU and MSTH provide people who use drugs with regulated, pure supply that protects them from the toxic and ever-changing street options. This safe supply programme has been under attack, while the BC government refuses to expand access—despite most experts, BC’s chief coroner, and a 2022 coroner’s death review panel all agreeing it would save lives.
Instead, the number of people on prescribed safe supply dropped from 5,044 in March to 4,619 in June—a significant decrease, especially when conservative estimates suggest at least 80,000 people province-wide could be eligible for opioid-based safer supply based on current access guidelines. (Safer supply for other types of substances also exists, but is less publicized.)
Vancouver Coastal Health is also organizing events for International Overdose Awareness Day, including naloxone and drug-checking workshops at Roxy Burger and the North Vancouver City Library, and a harm reduction information session on Commercial Drive.
While Graham says the politics of the past year has been exhausting, she is most looking forward to the march as a chance to look back at all the work that’s happened in VANDU’s 25-year history.
“[We’re] kind of looking back to see all the work we’ve done with all those people that we’ve lost,” she says. “Without them, government policy wouldn’t have changed as much as it has.”
International Overdose Awareness Day march and barbecue
The march and barbecue is organized by Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, West Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society, and Coalition of Peers Dismantling the Drug War as a celebration of life for people who have died, and a celebration of resilience for those continuing to fight for fewer unregulated drug deaths.
When: August 31, from 12:30pm
Where: Meeting at VANDU, 380 East Hastings Street
International Overdose Awareness Day memorial and speakers
Organized by Moms Stop the Harm, this will feature interactive events and a series of speakers that are focused on putting a human face to the huge scale of unregulated drug deaths.
When: August 31, from 11am
Where: Kitsilano Beach tennis courts, 1499 Arbutus Street, Vancouver