International Overdose Awareness Day 2019 will see B.C. events take a political but subdued tone, activists say

Five years into Vancouver's opioid epidemic, some groups say they're simply too burned out to put in the work that major advocacy campaigns require

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      Earlier this month, Leslie McBain travelled to Kelowna to spend time with a woman who had lost a first and then a second son to drug overdoses.

      “She’s a good friend and she goes up and down, so I was there to take care of her,” McBain recounted in a telephone interview.

      McBain is a founding member of Moms Stop the Harm (MSTH), a national group of parents who have lost family members to Canada’s overdose crisis. While she was in Kelowna, MSTH members there came up with an idea they hoped would draw attention to the health emergency. They partnered with a photographer named Nicole Richard and McBain went with them. The women carried crosses and gathered in a field of tall grass that overlooks Okanagan Lake. And there they remembered their children.

      “Every single person in the photograph has lost their world in the loss of their child,” McBain told the Straight.

      “It’s hard to keep telling that story and telling that story without having any appreciable movement from the feds,” she continued. “They’re rolling out money and everybody is talking and there are zillions of committees and meetings, but nothing is changing.”

      The Kelowna photograph was taken ahead of International Overdose Awareness Day, this Saturday (August 31), and roughly two months in advance of Canada’s next federal election, which must take place by October 21.

      McBain said the message for this year’s overdose-awareness day is therefore inevitably more political than the organization is normally comfortable with.

      “Trudeau is fucking up all over the place,” she said. “But if we lose the Liberals, we lose so much ground. They are rolling out money, they do consult with Moms Stop the Harm all the time….We’re locked in with them and I’m afraid that if the Conservatives get in, we’re going to have to start back at square one.”

      On Saturday, Moms Stop the Harm will have a booth at the Vancouver Public Library’s Central Branch where members will share information about coping with grief and loss. According to, it will be one of dozens of meetings and activities scheduled throughout B.C. and dozens more across Canada.

      In Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the Overdose Prevention Society, a nonprofit that operates an injection site at 58 East Hastings, is establishing a consultation service that will help people connect to health and social services.

      “We’ve been doing a mural project in the alley, and beginning on the eve of overdose-awareness day, we’re wrapping that up with an art show, with the artists who put their work in the alley,” the organization’s cofounder and executive director, Sarah Blyth, told the Straight. “People can check it out.”

      Of the Overdose Prevention Society’s new consultation service, Blyth said it will focus on connecting people who are addicted to opioids with a regulated supply.

      There are several Downtown Eastside locations that offer prescription opioids as a safer alternative to street drugs. Crosstown Clinic has diacetylmorphine (the medical term for heroin), Pier Health Resource Centre provides patients with a similar drug called hydromorphone (brand name Dilaudid), and PHS Community Services Society offers hydromorphone as well as slow-release oral morphine. (All three organizations also prescribe more-traditional substitutes for illicit opioids, such as methadone and Suboxone.)

      There were 538 illicit-drug overdose deaths in B.C. during the first six months of 2019 and 1,533 the year before. More than 85 percent of them involved the dangerous synthetic-opioids fentanyl and carfentanil.

      Travis Lupick / B.C. Coroners Service

      David Mendes is a cofounder of a new group called the Canadian Association for Safe Supply (CASS) and a member of a community-based arts research project called Illicit. He told the Straight that on Saturday evening, they’re planning to deliver a special performance of its show, also called Illicit, in the same alley where the Overdose Prevention Society’s mural project is wrapping up this week. Like McBain, Mendes believes that the October federal election gives this year’s overdose-awareness day a more political theme.

      “We can’t tell you how to vote,” he said, “but we can ask people to explore the option of aligning themselves with politicians and parties that do support things like safe supply and decriminalization.”

      Outside Vancouver, International Overdose Awareness Day happenings are planned for Surrey, Kelowna, and Victoria, among other locations throughout the province.

      Laura Shaver, vice-president of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, says members will have victims of Canada's opioid epidemic in their hearts on International Overdose Awareness Day 2019 but this year will not be organizing a public event.
      Travis Lupick

      In past years, events have come together with considerable support from members of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU). But vice-president Laura Shaver told the Straight that for 2019, the 21-year-old organization is largely sitting out.

      “We don’t have anything planned this year,” she said in a telephone interview. Shaver noted that five years into the fentanyl crisis, after hosting overdose events year after year, many VANDU members can’t bring themselves to do it yet again.

      “People are so burned out from so many deaths that it’s gotten hard to rally a big group,” she explained. “It’s very sad but that’s the way it is.”