Drugs

What the Opioid Overdose Crisis Looks Like in Vancouver

At a vigil in the city's hard-hit Downtown Eastside neighborhood, family and friends remember hundreds lost.

by Cara McKenna
Feb 6 2017, 5:41pm

The rising death toll from fentanyl has devastated communities across Canada, but the struggling Downtown Eastside of Vancouver has been the hardest hit. With sometimes multiple overdose deaths in the area per night, it's the epicenter of the more than 900 total deaths in the province last year alone.

As local government grapples to respond to the ongoing opioid emergency, the tight knit community is in mourning. On Sunday afternoon, several dozen people gathered in Pigeon Park to pay their respects to all the people who have died.

Attendees—some of whom had lost family members to overdose as recently as three weeks ago—lit candles, left photos of family members, and shared stories. Many had criticism about how the devastating health crisis has been handled, and suggestions for what needs to happen next.

Michelle Fortin, Downtown Eastside counselor

VICE: Tell me about why you decided to attend this vigil.
Michelle Fortin: I've worked in the community for 25 years, and it's the first time I've ever wanted to say, "You just can't use right now." Which is really hard when you're a harm-reduction believer, to say, actually, please don't use. It's a struggle and good people are dying.

What has the response to this crisis been like from your perspective?
I think the problem is that there are a bunch of different intersections in terms of legislation that haven't necessarily happened quickly enough. Even access to naloxone and training. I think the fact that anyone has access now is great, but the fact that you have to pay for it makes it unmanageable for some folks. The other thing, too, is we don't do a whole lot around prevention. We need to approach it from many different places. Naloxone is not the only answer.

Do you feel hopeful for the future?
I refuse to lose hope. And I'm here because I have hope and because it's important to honor the people who have passed. I think the message here for people who are still struggling is that people give a shit. People care.

Gerald Kematch, Indigenous outreach worker

VICE: Why are you attending today?
Gerald Kematch: I work for the Indian Residential School Survivors Society as a Downtown Eastside liaison. Fentanyl affects a lot of people down here, and my line of work is trying to deal with trauma, and why people do the things they do to cope. Drugs are just a coping mechanism.

What do you think needs to happen next for people in the Downtown Eastside?
I think more money has to be thrown into prevention and trauma and healing the trauma. The system also contributes to a lot of the issues: the lack of funding, the biases, the misconceptions about these people down here. These are human beings. These are authentic people down here.

Is there anyone in particular who you're thinking of today?
I've known quite a few people, but mostly just remembering my friend because we went through a lot of stuff together. I think about him.

Elizabeth Sutherland, Downtown Eastside resident

VICE: You live on the Downtown Eastside?
Elizabeth Sutherland: I live in one of the two worst SROs in Vancouver, I've been there for a month. Never in my life have I experienced such stress as I have in the last month.

How have you been impacted by the fentanyl crisis?
I have a naloxone kit. When I hear (an emergency), I run out. And I'm 68 and crippled from arthritis. My body hurts. It's not my job to rescue people, if the city had opened drug-testing sites, the addicts would have clean drugs, and people would not be dying.

You think drug-testing sites are the solution?
That's the absolute solution for this emergency. Drug-testing sites on every corner. It's not the addicts; the addicts are polite and respectful and human beings. It's the drugs that are bad, and they're killing us. It's unspeakable. There are only two or three drug testing sites in the whole city. That's Mayor Gregor Robertson's fault. Also, people walk down the street, and they don't even notice a man ODing. They walk on by.

Sonny Dean, musician

VICE: Why are you here today?
Sonny Dean: To comfort a friend. She's on her way here. She lost her brother.

This has been a painful time for many people. Do you think this kind of memorial event is helping people like your friend heal?
Her brother who passed, he was my friend. He's one of those people who you feel this should not have had happened to. I heard he dabbled casually. I don't think anyone should be doing that. I think the people who do dabble, perhaps they're looking for a bit of joy that they don't have, and it's a shame.

Nesa Tousi, frontline worker

VICE: What brings you out today?
Nesa Tousi: I'm one of the frontline workers. I've just witnessed a lot of deaths.

It's been such a rough year here. As a frontline worker, do you feel like the government has been handling this in an urgent enough way?
No. There's been a lot of delays and lagging. The crisis has been ongoing for about a year now. It's been an ongoing concern for people who work the frontline. Our attempts at advocating, unfortunately, fall on deaf ears for the most part.

Is there anything else you want people to know about this crisis, as someone who's in the middle of it?
Just keep connected to community, and for the folks who aren't immediately affected, to do things in their capacity. Make food for someone, clean their house, shovel their driveway. Do the things that seem like menial tasks but can be really hard to do when you can't take care of yourself.

Audrey Siegl (with Victor Thompson), vigil organizer


VICE: This vigil is called "Love Heals." Why?

Audrey Siegl: Because love is the only thing that I've found that's actually helped me to heal at all. I've been on a healing journey, let's call it, for 15 years, and I circle back to love over and over again. I circle back to rage, I circle back to pain, I circle back to disappointment, I circle back to confusion of not knowing why things are the way they are, but the thing I keep coming back to over and over again is love.

Can you tell me about why you decided to organize this event today?
I've been bringing medicine here to the Downtown Eastside for three months, specifically to support with the grief of the huge numbers of loss in the last couple of years. It does affect me personally. I have friends down here, and I have loved ones down here. I have lost every single one of my uncles and my auntie to the life that they got accustomed to living here in the Downtown Eastside, and three weeks ago, my mom died of a fentanyl overdose.

I'm not just going to sit and be angry and immobilized with pain. My mom never had a moment of dignity or respect or peace in almost 63 years, so for her to die that way after living the horrific life that she lived, it wasn't even just painful. It wasn't just awakening. It was the ultimate form of disrespect because it's murder. It's murder that's carrying on the genocide that's existed here for more than 500 years.

What do you want people to remember about your mom?
She deserved more. She deserved to at least have a chance. The fact that she died the way she did shows that there's still a lot wrong. We need to keep standing up, speaking the truth, fighting, uniting, and putting things back to balance, to accomplish that peace that's necessary for all of us. I'm not stopping until we get there.

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