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Burnaby non-profits want less stigma, more resources to fight drug crisis

With city suffering dozens of deaths every year from toxic drugs, coalition combats demonization of users, calls for easier access to detox
The Burnaby Community Action Team comprises more than two dozen non-profit organizations addressing the toxic drug supply crisis and trying to reduce the number of overdoses

With the death toll from toxic drugs in Burnaby alone rising to more than 420 since 2012, one coalition of local non-profits has boots on the ground to save lives.

For the Burnaby Community Action Team (BCAT), a group of about 27 public non-profit organizations working to address the toxic drug supply crisis and reduce the number of overdoses, two of its primary goals are to raise awareness and stop the stigma of substance use.

One of BCAT’s programs is the Community Peer Resources Network, an initiative that works to build relationships in the community to reduce harm. Many of its members have personal experience with substance use and substance use disorders.

Hedy Wolff, BCAT’s peer co-ordinator, leads the team of peers in training, from first aid to conflict resolution and more, providing harm reduction, safe supplies and education resources. The group is lively and collaborative, creating art projects and sharing food and conversation.

Outreach is done in a variety of places: from farmers markets to community festivals to with people who are homeless and living on the street.

“It is everywhere – it does not discriminate,” Wolff said.

BCAT wants to build a network for people to feel it’s safe to talk about their drug use, so they can be supported with resources.

Most victims of toxic drug deaths are males between the ages of 20 and 59.

“I think Burnaby, as a community, our biggest challenge is the housed population, that is where we’re seeing the most death happening for males, males in their primes,” said Navreen Gill, executive director of Burnaby Family Life, one of BCAT’s members.

“And that’s where for us, as the Burnaby Community Action Team, we’ve had to really focus.… How do we reach this hidden population? How do we reach individuals who don’t want to talk about it?”

One of BCAT’s goals to reduce deaths is to address the stigma around substance use.

“Sometimes when we’re at community events, we’re not always getting friendly questions,” Gill said. “We patiently listen, we acknowledge … everybody’s coming from a place of how they’ve been socialized, and part of our job is to educate with the facts.”

“One of the ways we’re trying to normalize is people being able to talk about it, because it starts there,” she added.

Wolff noted people often don’t want to talk about substance use because it’s seen as shameful.

“It becomes a ‘dirty’ issue, or ‘morally wrong,’ so people don’t want to say, ‘Hey, I need some help.’”

What would help the issue locally? BCAT says a detox centre, a place where a person can be medically supervised in an abstinence phase.

There is no detox in Burnaby. People have to go to Vancouver or Surrey – but those spaces have a limited number of beds.

“I think we recognize that the gap for us in Burnaby, specifically, is that we don’t have a place to detox that’s accessible,” Gill said.

“Your body goes through hardcore withdrawal,” Wolff said, adding, “You do need medical assistance.”

If people have the means, they might be able to access private services, but otherwise, people have to spend time on the phone and wade through waiting lists.

“Usually with somebody that has got substance use disorder, that time period when they’re like, ‘Oh, I need some help right now,’ ― it needs to be fast. Or else they’ll slip back into the old cycle.… And then fatalities are happening,” Wolff said.

Beyond making detox more accessible, Gill said, the government also needs to “help draw awareness to the stigmas” surrounding substance use.

“It’s going to take us time, but we need people to start talking about it. We need people to start having conversations about use, we need to bring it to the forefront, we need to be talking to our children about it, our neighbours about it. Create spaces where individuals who are using are not doing it in isolation.”

Wolff said: “Substance use is not a dirty thing. And there’s so much health attached to it ― and healing attached to why people do that.… It’s not a simple thing; it’s complex.”

Burnaby’s toxic-drug death toll

Burnaby continues to suffer the devastating effects of British Columbia’s continuing opioid crisis.

BC Coroners Service data shows Burnaby lost 410 lives to illicit drug toxicity between 2013 and 2022.

2021 marked the highest total for Burnaby in a decade when the city recorded 81 deaths. The second-highest year was 2020, when 59 lives were lost.

Burnaby’s death toll marked one of the highest totals among major municipalities noted by the BC Coroners Service.

The toll over the past decade:

• 2013 – 13

• 2014 – 11

• 2015 – 15

• 2016 – 40

• 2017 – 44

• 2018 – 49

• 2019 – 29

• 2020 – 59

• 2021 – 81

• 2022 – 69

As of May 18, nine deaths have been reported in Burnaby for 2023.

“It’s critical that we rely on science, reliable data and legitimate reporting as we respond to an emergency that has taken the lives of so many of our family members, friends and neighbours,” B.C. chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said in a May 18 news release.

Lapointe rebutted claims that recent measures to try to ensure a safer drug supply have been adding to the crisis.

“We mustn’t lose sight of the fact that the root of this crisis was the arrival of illicit fentanyl in B.C. in 2013, and that it has been driven by illicit fentanyl ever since. Safer-supply prescribing and the decriminalization of small amounts of some drugs for personal use are recent health-centred approaches to a complex health challenge. Anonymous allegations and second-hand anecdotes suggesting that these new initiatives are somehow responsible for the crisis our province has been experiencing since early 2016 are not only harmful, they are simply wrong.”

― With files from Jess Balzer

This article is part of an in-depth, provincewide journalistic effort by Glacier Media to examine the scope, costs and toll of the opioid and toxic drug crisis in British Columbia – a public health emergency that has taken at least 11,807 lives since 2016. If you or someone you know is in an emergency, call 911. If you need help with substance abuse, call the B.C. government's alcohol and drug information and referral service at 1-800-663-1441. It's available 24 hours a day.