On Thursday (August 31) Vancouver will be one of more than 50 cities around the world hosting events to commemorate International Overdose Awareness Day.
There are three rally points where people are scheduled to listen to speakers, hold vigils, and demand government action on the fentanyl crisis. The first event will begin at 12 p.m. in a lot at 58 West Hastings Street near Abbott. The second location is the north side of the Vancouver Art Gallery, where speakers will take the stage beginning at 5 p.m. Outside Vancouver, there’s an Overdose Awareness Day gathering in New Westminster’s Hyack Square starting at 6 p.m.
Jordan Westfall is president of the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs (CAPUD). In a telephone interview, he said the message at the Downtown Eastside event will be one of empowerment. “The idea that we fight for those we love and lost,” he explained. “And that we fight for policies that respect our human rights.”
That event is hosted by CAPUD plus a number of community organizations including the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society (WAHRS), and the Portland Hotel Society (PHS).
At 4 p.m., a march will begin from 58 West Hastings to the art gallery at West Georgia and Howe streets.
Speakers there are scheduled to include Nichola Hall of From Grief to Action, a group that was instrumental in Vancouver’s response to a spike in overdoses the city struggled with in the 1990s. Another is Darwin Fisher, who manages North America’s first sanctioned supervised-injection facility, Insite. A third is Libby Davies, who was an NDP MP representing Vancouver East for 18 years until 2015.
In a telephone interview, one of the day’s organizers, Tabitha Montgomery, said the decision to host the second event at a location outside the Downtown Eastside was a conscious one. She explained they want to send a message that B.C.’s ongoing overdose epidemic is not confined to one neighbourhood.
“I am hoping we can make that very clear,” Montgomery emphasized. “This is not just a Downtown Eastside problem.”
This year B.C. is on track to see more than 1,500 overdose deaths. It’s projected only a little more than 400 of those will occur within the city of Vancouver. Surrey, Abbotsford, and Burnaby, for example, are all expected to see record numbers of fatal overdoses in 2017.
Montgomery said that in response to the arrival of fentanyl, Canada must begin to discuss legalizing hard drugs and providing access on a prescription basis via the health-care system.
“That is first and foremost,” she emphasized. “And then we need to start getting really serious about where we go from harm reduction.”
Montgomery said that several years into a sharp increase in overdose deaths, she’s disappointed there’s still little talk of bolstering B.C.’s capacity for addictions treatment and rehabilitation.
Libby Davies told the Straight that at the event, she plans to share a poem by Bud Osborn, a Downtown Eastside activist who co-founded VANDU and helped bring Insite to Vancouver before he passed away in 2014.
“If he was still here, he would just be beside himself with what’s going on with the number of overdoses that have happened,” Davies said.
On a response to the fentanyl crisis, she echoed Montgomery’s call for access clean drugs.
“The most critical thing right now is a safe supply of drugs that are accessible,” she said. “It is absolutely what has got to happen.”