Next to the bushes in front of Nelson City Hall, Serge Tetrault planted tiny signs meant to evoke tombstones. Near the front of the display, one sign stuck out: “How many more will have to die?”
Five years into B.C.’s toxic drug supply crisis, with over 7,000 people dead, it remains a question without an answer.
“People are dying left and right, and nobody’s really noticing,” said Tetrault.
AIDS Network Kootenay Outreach and Support Society (ANKORS) held a small demonstration Wednesday to mark the anniversary of the day in 2016 when the provincial government declared the crisis.
From April 2016 through to the end of February 2021, 7,072 British Columbians have died. Thirteen people have died in Nelson, with six of those deaths occurring in 2020.
On Wednesday, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson announced $45 million in funding for programs aimed at stopping poisonings caused by illicit fentanyl in street drugs.
Malcolmson also said B.C. will request a federal exemption to decriminalize personal possession.
Although the federal government introduced Bill C-22 in February, which repeals some mandatory minimum penalties for drug offences, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has so far resisted calls for decriminalization.
But, according to people on the front lines of the crisis, allowing personal possession is only one of many solutions needed.
Amber Streukens, ANKORS’ harm reduction peer navigator, advocates for a safe supply of drugs in B.C., albeit with changes from the current model.
Last year the province created a program that allows doctors and nurses to prescribe alternatives free of fentanyl that satisfy opioid addiction.
But the suggested amounts of hydromorphone or morphine don’t replace the high found from street drugs. They are also not easily accessible — only two health care workers in Nelson prescribe them — and aren’t supported by years of research.
Streukens wants to see safe supply changed to include sourced and tested substances delivered at federally exempted compassion clubs.
“This is a stopgap perhaps, but it is possibly one of the only things that will keep people safe from an extremely toxic street supply,” she said.
As she stood outside city hall on Wednesday, it was hard for Streukens to feel any optimism. She had thought the declaration of a public health emergency would lead to significant changes.
Instead, more British Columbians died in 2020 than any previous year.
“It’s just heartbreaking to present the same solutions over and over and over again and to see no movement,” she said.
Tetrault said he knows people who have died during the crisis and questioned society’s empathy for those dying from drug poisoning.
“I don’t think this is how the human race is supposed to live,” he said. “I think we’re all supposed to take care of each other.”
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