FORT ST. JOHN, B.C. — Community organizations gathered at Festival Plaza Thursday afternoon to provide the public with information, resources, and support regarding addiction on International Overdose Awareness Day.
The event featured informative booths, free lunch and a vigil to remember those who’ve passed due to the overdose crisis.
Organizations in attendance included SNOW House, Northern Health, BC Metis Nation, Healing Hearts Bereavement Group, Rising Above Ministries, the Fort St John Friendship Society and the Salvation Army.
The event was organized by the Fort St. John Community Action Team — a coalition of several local health and social agencies, First Nations organizations and different levels of government aimed at providing additional support due to the overdose crisis.
The team’s fifth annual event began with smudging, followed by a traditional sundance song performed by Farley Cardinal, a member of the Sucker Creek First Nation in Alberta.
Cardinal told attendees the song was about a buffalo initially afraid to face a snowstorm, adding that the buffalo is one of the two animals that will face adversity head-on.
“This song represents all of you being the buffalo, going through that adversity, all the trials and tribulations, and persevering, knowing that you’re strong enough to keep going and find your happiness again,” Cardinal told the crowd.
After Cardinal’s performance, attendees were invited to gather outside the plaza in a sharing circle to speak about their experiences with addiction and overdose and heal with one another.
The project coordinator with Urban Systems, Sara Ochitwa attended the circle, and while she didn’t personally share, she said it was important for her to participate.
“It was great to have people share and hear their stories. I wanted to attend to bear witness and be a listener,” Ochitwa said.
She added she’s noticed people in the community who have or are currently struggling with problematic substance use are having a difficult time since the topic of substance use has been brought to the forefront of the community after the announcement of Northern Health’s OPS site.
“I can’t speak for them. But I think it hurts because they look around and see their friends are dying. This event is an opportunity to reduce harm and save lives,” Ochitwa said.
Ochitwa said too often, when people think about addiction, they go straight to talking about recovery and treatment. She pointed out that not everyone who is struggling with problematic substance use is at a place where they’re ready for those steps.
“The OPS site, and harm reduction and prevention in general, are about meeting people where they’re at. You offer something like an overdose prevention site with access to resources and services, so when they are ready to make that step, those resistance resources are there for them,” Ochitwa explained.
“They can’t get to treatment if they overdose and die. At the end of the day, it’s about respecting the humanity of people of all people, including people who use substances and are challenged by addiction,” she continued.
Ochitwa said it’s important to note that while there are people with professional medical knowledge of overdose prevention, the true experts are those with lived experience.
“That’s why they’re like an integral part of this. It’s a really important event and day, particularly when it comes to breaking down and addressing that stigma and shame that comes with using substances,” she said.
Inside the plaza, SNOW House and Northern Health distributed harm reduction supplies and taught safe injection techniques.
Healing Hearts made masks and paint available at its booth for attendees to decorate to honour the memory of someone they knew who died from an overdose, and the Salvation Army had a booth at the event to share resources and provided free lunches for attendees from its food truck.
A food drive was also held at the event to collect donations for the Women’s Resource Society and the Salvation Army Food Bank.