Call for greater actions on International Overdose Awareness Day

Indigenous people are disproportionately harmed by the opioid crisis due to colonial legacies

This photo is of Vancouver city streets. A few people and cars can be seen in the distance.
Support systems and community efforts are in place to end stigma. PHOTO: Andrea Cau / Unsplash

By: Pranjali J Mann, News Writer

International Overdose Awareness Day (IOAD), marked on August 31, recognizes the global effect of drug overdose and commemorates those who lost their lives. The campaign was initiated by Sally J. Finn in Melbourne in 2001. 

A report from the First Nations Health Authority last year highlighted that the opioid toxicity crisis overrepresented and disproportionately harmed First Nation communities.  

The Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) called for urgent collective action by all levels of the government. UBCIC president, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip said, “The overdose crisis is a symptom of unaddressed, long-term problems that only holistic and systemic changes can address.” Pointing towards the connections between substance overdose, issues of poverty, and housing instability, he called for “safe and affordable housing, mental and physical health systems free from racism and discrimination, accessible socio-economic services to support people in crisis, and a full spectrum of culturally appropriate substance use services to meet the needs of all people who use drugs.”

According to CBC Newsstatistics from earlier this year, there are an average of six people dying daily due to increased drug toxicity in BC. The key findings of the government of Canada’s June 2022 report also found an upward trend of deaths during the pandemic as “toxicity of supply continues to be a major driver of the crisis.” 

Chief Don Tom, UBCIC vice-president, noted colonialism and its legacy in systems as the root cause of the issue. UBCIC’s secretary-treasurer, Kukpi7 Judy Wilson, also said, “We are outraged by this human rights crisis and demand that Vancouver, British Columbia, and Canada work collaboratively with First Nations to preserve the lives and dignity of this community. We will continue to advocate and support those families who lost loved ones to overdoses for meaningful change in all our communities and Nations.”

BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) reverberated the need for collective effort from various community organizations and levels of government. Their press release noted their demands of “implementing progressive and comprehensive drug laws and policy, ending the criminalization and stigmatization of drug use, and expanding and scaling up harm reduction programs and measures, including an increase in safe injection and safe inhalation sites, and safe supply programs.” The association indicated other measures including “full decriminalization of all drug possession for personal use, and sharing or selling of drugs for subsistence,” and providing an all encompassing safe supply to tackle the issue of drug overdose. 

Vancouver’s recent decision to decriminalize drugs is set to reduce the stigma around drug-related support, according to the government of BC’s website. Decriminalization would “remove barriers to treatment and connect people with lifesaving support without the fear of prosecution or the risk of using drugs alone,” according to the BC government press release