Maffeo Sutton Park was the backdrop for a rally in Nanaimo on Tuesday, as drug users joined their peers across Canada for a National Day of Action on the Overdose Crisis.
The event featured speeches, a march to city hall where participants placed flowers in a coffin to commemorate lives lost to overdoses, and a community outreach event and barbecue at Maffeo Sutton Park. Similar events took place in more than 20 cities across Canada but, locally, was a collaboration between New Leaf Outreach, a peer-run drug-user organization, and the Nanaimo Community Action Team, comprised of city staff and non-profit organizations that provide services to people who use drugs.
Tuesday’s event marked the third anniversary of B.C.’s declaration of a public health emergency due to the increase of overdose deaths. According to the B.C. Coroners Service, fentanyl-related drug overdoses claimed the lives of 31 people in Nanaimo in 2018.
Kevin Donaghy, executive director of New Leaf Outreach Society, delivered a speech which laid out lists of demands from the federal, provincial and municipal governments.
“The last year in British Columbia there were more overdose deaths than any other year prior,” Donaghy said, during his speech. “The overdose crisis continues to get worse and we’re here today to hold the government accountable to address the overdose crisis and to meaningfully engage the people who use drugs in the process of addressing the overdose crisis.”
Donaghy said members of groups, such as New Leaf Outreach Society, are the experts when it comes to overdose prevention, that it was drug users in the province who were at the front line of overdose prevention before provincial health authorities began investing in harm reduction, and drug users remain at the front line of overdose prevention today. He said the solution to ending the overdose crisis is to get past the moral issue of using drugs and support people who use drugs and provide them with a safe, regulated supply of drugs.
“The call from people who use drugs from across the province and across the country is to demand that drug policy reform happen immediately and that we provide people with the drugs that they need, that they use, that they want to use, that they have a choice to use, that we stop criminalizing people who use drugs,” he said.
The list of demands from the federal, provincial and municipal governments include a declaration of a national public health emergency; a safe and regulated supply of drugs; accessible and Canadian-produced heroin; decriminalization of drug use; emergency funding for overdose prevention sites; immediate funding for peer-run overdose prevention sites; and sustainable funding for safe supply programs across B.C. and in Nanaimo. In addition, Donaghy demands that staff at Nanaimo Regional General Hospital undergo compassion training “so that drug users are able to safely access services.”
Donaghy also demanded a drug analysis facility be provided so people can have their drugs tested to determine if they are safe before they are ingested.