Meet the Harm Reduction Worker Who Called Out Trudeau on the Opioid Crisis
“It’s a national disaster, you are not doing enough. The bodies keep mounting.”
Photos by Anthony Tuccitto
Last night at VICE Canada's talk with Justin Trudeau about the upcoming cannabis legalization and regulation system slated for 2018, a harm reduction worker on our panel named Zoë Dodd grilled the prime minister. But it wasn't about weed—it was about the opioid overdose crisis that has brought immense loss to thousands of Canadians and continues to take multiple lives daily.
If you didn't catch the intense interaction between Dodd and Trudeau, you can watch part of it below (and watch the entire interview here):
Dodd is a frontline harm reduction and support worker who is based at the South Riverdale Community Health Centre and coordinates the Hepatitis C program in Toronto, among a slew of other responsibilities and commitments in her field.
"So many people I work with or who work on the frontline have been messaging me and saying that they cried," Dodd told me today about the response she's received.
VICE reached out to interview Dodd today about her work and how it felt to be able to confront the prime minister. As she mentioned during the talk with Trudeau, she lost five friends and 30 people she worked with this past year.
VICE: How did it feel to confront the prime minister about issues that have affected you so much?
Zoë Dodd: It felt therapeutic, honestly, to be able to speak directly to him. A lot of us on the frontlines don't have seats at the table in the overdose action plan. There's a lot of doctors, researchers; yet people like myself who are in it day to day and have experience, who are experts as well and have really good, sound advice to give, we are not at the table. It felt good to be able to say directly to him what they need to do because they're not doing enough. I can't handle the lack of response from all of government.
I work in health care. So when SARS happened, they created networks, they had all these meetings. They didn't go to the public and say, "We found the solution for stopping SARS is handwashing—let's hold public consultation for the next 15 days to see how the public feels about handwashing." But with anything to do with drug users, we have to go through all these things, even in an emergency, to get advice from the public. It slows it down. They got a handle on SARS really quickly; only 44 people died.
It makes me so mad because this is about drug users. It's not just about people who use drugs though—the majority of the people in Vancouver, the proportion is Aboriginal people, homeless people, people who are poor. These are not people the government cares about. It's their policies, it's not even just the war on drugs or about drugs—colonization, lack of housing, lack of employment, poverty—that's created this crisis. It felt good to tell him off. I don't think too many people speak to the prime minister that way. He is very slick, and people are afraid, especially around funding. But people I love are dead, and I'm pretty pissed off and deeply saddened.
What death has hit you the hardest out of all of those you've gone through?
There's been so many. It's hard not to cry about it. Losing friends is a deep pain. Losing one person is very painful, but losing many people, you don't even get time to heal. I haven't had any time really to grieve. The last death that really impacted me was my mentor and coworker of the last 13 years, Raffi Balian. I worked side by side with him, and he really got me into this work and was my confidante, and was willing to take risks as well. He went out to a supervised safe injection site meeting in Vancouver to present and overdosed and died the night before the meeting. He was a long-time drug user, fully experienced. I think what was so traumatizing about the loss of him was I was on the phone with people at the meeting trying to track him and my boss down because they were supposed to be presenting. Then, after finding out he died, I had to contact our friends we did international work with—who he did work with for 20 years—to let them know he was dead, and call up his ex-partner who'd he'd been with for 14 years to track her down and let her know.
Losing him has left a huge gulf, not only at my work where he created the harm reduction program, but also just deep inside me. I'm really sad still. He was our second coworker to die from the centre. We lost a coworker the same day we put in our application for the supervised injection service—we were having a party at the centre to celebrate, and we found out our coworker, who was an amazing advocate and all-around good human being, took his life. I thought then that we couldn't be living in any more hell, but then losing Raffi, it was like this is the ultimate hell.
How did you get into your line of work in the first place?
I was in an unhealthy relationship, really depressed, and feeling like I could be doing more with my life. I was playing in bands and working at a record store at the time, which was super good. I loved that part of my life, but I felt like I could be doing more in service and community-based. So I went to school to George Brown College for a year, and I got a placement at Street Health, and I really had to push for them to take me as a student there… I really wanted to work with drug users because I also had the experience of using drugs. I think some of the best kind of harm reduction is done when it's people with that experience talking to each other without judgment.
I started there as a student, then became an HIV-AIDS outreach worker. I got interested in supporting people who use crack, advocacy around crack users. I got involved with The Safer Crack Use Coalition… I was very interested in Hep C because drug users were being turned away from accessing treatment for Hepatitis C. It was there I started a program for people living with Hepatitis C who use drugs, which I coordinate today. That's been modeled across the province a number of times now, but it started in the basement as a group. Now, it's looked at nationally as a model. I've been so passionate because my friends use drugs, people I care about do.
What did you think about Trudeau's response, and later, Bill Blair's?
The police make a lot of money off the drug war. It keeps them in their jobs, the laws help keep them employed, it keeps their budgets bulk. I don't expect someone who is the ex-Chief of Police of Toronto to agree with me… I mean, god, if we decriminalized drugs, it would be putting a lot of these people out of jobs who Bill Blair wouldn't want to see without a job. So his response did not surprise me.
The prime minister saying "I'm not there yet," I was glad he said it. I think people need to know where he actually stands because he doesn't quite ever get to the point. He's a very rehearsed person, and he's well-coached. I didn't appreciate how smug he looked and that he was smiling while I was talking about something like the deaths of people in this country. That looked like a real lack of heart and a lack of sincerity on his part.
I actually think the [new] cannabis laws are really criminalizing and are something people should be really concerned about as well. They're not good laws. It's also the corporations getting the cut; it's going to be their buddies who get access. The young man Malik's question, that stuck with me the most when I was thinking last night about it… The prime minister's response to him was not only so racist, but it was also really glaring when he was saying that it was unfair, yet his brother had access to people and could get off these charges. There's so much economic inequality to this, and you're just saying it's unfairness to this young man? Your family could get off, but this young man might not get off because he's a young man of colour, and they're the most impacted by the drug war? That answer to him more than what he said to me upset me the most… Everyone should be getting amnesty, including that young man.
Where do you stand on the decriminalization vs. legalization and regulation of non-cannabis drugs in Canada?
I feel very complicated about it because seeing how legalization is happening with cannabis, in the system we have now, I think that the government is interested in a kind of monopoly on that business. Rich, white men are going to get access and be able to have businesses—not the people who've been taking the risks and selling cannabis across the country. For me, legalization [of other drugs] in the same system, I am concerned about how that would roll out with this kind of government and what access would look like. He was saying last night that there wouldn't be a black market, but actually there would be. If you are just selling weed 9-5 and the shops are sporadic, I would just call my weed dealer because they'll bring it to me.
Right now, I think the best thing the government could do would be to move to decriminalization. To allow people to have quantities of drugs on them so that people could buy and purchase their drugs more safely, then move to legalization and regulation and taxation… Technically, there's steps toward the legalization of prescription heroin, so if they look at what they're doing there. I'm in favour of ending the war; I'm in favour of looking at other models. I think they need to talk to those who are using drugs about what they think would work.
What kind of resources do you need on the frontlines right now that you aren't seeing?
There have been no increased resources for overdose prevention, so there should be those kind of programs in every city and town. There should be workers who can do education and workshops and have access to naloxone in bulk. Harm reduction, the government does a good talk about how they support it, but it hasn't had an increase in funding. It hasn't had the resources it needs. Also, this government just cut funding to AIDS and Hepatitis C organizations, which do a lot of harm reduction work and engaging with drug users… That funding needs to come back, and it actually needs its own influx of funding.
He talked about the PTSD of workers, but what they talk about often are paramedics, police, firefighters. They don't actually have relationships like we do to people we work with. There's nothing for folks on the frontlines. When I went off of work, I was completely traumatized and messed up, and feeling really sad. I thought about phoning the veterans' hotline because I was thinking they might understand what it's like to deal with trauma every day and still have to go back to your job… That's happening in Vancouver. People are just burning out because they're witnessing things with limited resources. There needs to be money for the well-being of workers. We also just need action, and that will help the workers feel better.
What did Trudeau say to you at the end of the event?
He just explained that he understood how I am feeling. I said, "No, you don't." I said publicly that I lost five friends in the last year, but that doesn't include the friends I lost the year before, it doesn't include the friends I've lost in my lifetime, it doesn't include the people my friends have lost… He couldn't feel that pain. He has no idea. I asked him about the exemptions, and I just kept saying that he isn't doing enough and this is a national crisis. He admitted to and said that it is a national crisis and that they weren't doing enough. For me, I was glad to hear him say it because he needs to say that publicly, that this is a national crisis, a public health emergency. He needs to declare it as such. Those resources aren't just for frontlines, they're for funding across the country to have proper data surveillance so we know how many people are actually dying—which we don't know, because there is no coordinated effort. I don't want apologies.
Yesterday when I was speaking to the prime minister, I was really thinking about all the frontline workers I know who are really struggling, all of the people I know who are grieving and impacted by loss. I was also thinking about myself: There's no words to explain what it's been like. At first, I used to describe it as witnessing drowning, slow death. Now, at times, I just feel like I'm witnessing murder. It's incredibly traumatizing just knowing there are real solutions that could be enacted to save lives, but because of the people who are dying—they're not rich and middle-class, they don't go to the polls—to me, it feels like genocide. When there is no action, that is how it feels.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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