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Nanaimo stakeholders call for better inter-agency collaboration in drug crisis

Experts and stakeholders gathered at Port Theatre for an anti-stigma community dialogue May 28
Humanity and the need for inter-agency collaboration were focuses of a panel held in Nanaimo on May 28. (News Bulletin file photo)

A lack of inter-agency collaboration was seen as a major problem by panelists during on dialogue on addressing the stigma of the toxic drug crisis in Nanaimo.

The Nanaimo Community Action Team held a discussion Tuesday, May 28, at the Port Theatre.

“There has been a lot thrown to the table as to what we can do directly in this community. For 10 years we’ve had health and housing plans and conferences, meetings and all always pointing to collaborative efforts,” said Jovonne Johnson, director with non-profit Risebridge. “The thing is bringing the right people to the table.”

This past April marked eight years since the toxic drug crisis was declared a health emergency. During the eight years, Island Health’s region has experienced 2,400 drug-poisoning deaths.

The panel on Tuesday, May 28 was part of a series of talks organized by the community action team on safety, harm reduction and the drug crisis in the city. Panelists included Allison Ainsley from the South End Community Association, Wanda LeBlanc from Moms Stop the Harm, Sharon Karsten from Walk With Me, as well as several other grassroots organizations.

Johnson recognized city staff who made a point to attend, but lamented a lack of elected officials.

“These are the people holding the positions who have the ability to make the systematic change we need on the municipal front at the present moment and they continuously don’t show up to these conversations,” she said. “When they do they’re given the comfort of sitting in positions that are comfortable, they’re not called out on it. We don’t ask them what their action looks like.”

READ MORE: Island Health marks 8th anniversary of B.C.’s toxic-drug crisis

Also discussed was the need to humanize the issue.

Fred Jeffery, owner of the downtown fashion store Lucid, told the story of his friend and former co-worker Emily, who died from an overdose in her car in 2023, just a few blocks away from a safe consumption site.

“I really honestly can’t help but think it was the stigma that prevented her from just going down the street and visiting the [overdose prevention site] that day or any other day and potentially saving her life,” he said.

Jeffery said he tells the story of Emily’s death to fellow business owners.

“Business minds tend to like the simplest and cheapest solutions to problems. Unfortunately this sometimes means sometimes my business neighbours just don’t want this problem to exist on their doorstep. The easiest solution is just to push it away with no real solution for the outcome,” he said. “I think just humanizing and telling their stories is really important.”

Griffin Russell, regional harm reduction coordinator with Island Health Shared Services B.C. emphasized that need.

“When we’re talking about people they’re so multi-dimensional,” he said. “They’re poets, they’re artists, they’re adventurers, athletes, musicians. They are friends, they’re cherished. So to me that is the ultimate gesture, to just bring it into these conversations and just add that.”

Russell added that he avoids focusing heavily on the addiction aspect in these conversation, as he said the vast majority of drug users would not be considered within the scope of addiction.

“They do not meet those diagnositic criterias or this new softer language we have around substance-use disorders,” he said. “There’s a massive spectrum out there. I understand, I believe in my heart that people are using substances as a way of coping, as a way of showing up, a component of their resiliency and it’s very nuanced.”

Lenae Silva from the Open Heart Collaborative spoke from her own experience as a substance user. She said the answer to addressing the crisis is a lot simpler than most people think.

“If someone pulled your house away from you, your home away from you, your ability to be comfortable, what would you do?” Silva asked. “We have to unsilo all of these programs and start working together. Island Health is a separate entity, housing associations are separate entities.”

Last week’s event follows past public dialogues on the toxic drug crisis in 2022 and 2023.

Jessica Durling

About the Author: Jessica Durling

Nanaimo News Bulletin journalist covering health, wildlife and Lantzville council.
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