Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson, as well as Comox Valley-Strathcona-North Island Medical Health Officer Dr. Charmaine Enns, were among the 30 participants at Saturday’s (Nov. 26) Walk With Me event in Courtenay.
The Walk With Me project involves a 45-minute group walk while listening to audio stories narrated by people whose lives have been impacted by the toxic drug poisoning crisis – including people who use drugs, family members and front-line workers.
After the walk, there is a group sharing circle for further discussion on the issue, and on what can be done to initiate change.
Saturday’s walk left a marked impression on Malcolmson.
“The voices of the men and women who told their stories resonate so much with what I have heard in Nanaimo,” she said. “It tells the story so powerfully about inter-generational trauma, and creates so much empathy for how people could be homeless, how they could be (struggling with) addiction. It is so much the story about how stigma and shame are at the root of so much in the overdose crisis. If other people could hear those stories, it would change the conversation about how we view, in all our communities, those who are homeless, and those who are struggling with addiction.
“If more people heard the stories we heard this morning, they would be more kind to people who are having a hard time; it would make everybody more willing to come forward and get help. It would mean fewer people would retreat at a time when they need to get help. I heard time and time again that the opposite of addiction is connection… a thing like Walk With Me can really bring people together, and I think it can save lives.”
Malcolmson said she would like to see the Walk With Me project come to more communities throughout the Island and beyond.
“I heard people in the sharing circle say this should go provincewide and I agree. I’d love to see it happen. While we build more supports for preventing overdose and for helping people overcome addiction, we really need to have that community understanding about the root of it.”
Since the toxic drug poisoning crisis was labeled a public health emergency in 2016, more than 30,000 Canadians have died, including 10,000 deaths in B.C. - an average of seven lives lost per day. In B.C., deaths due to drug overdoses are more common than deaths due to car crashes, homicides and suicides combined.
As the mental health and addictions minister, Malcolmson has seen some advancements in government support, but she realizes there is still a long way to go.
“No matter what, the elected officials have responsibilities, and I am working very hard to take that responsibility,” she said. “We’ve added hundreds of new addiction treatment beds, we’ve added prescribed safe supply, we’ve achieved decriminalization for people who use drugs, we are working on prevention, all those things. That’s a fact, and it’s a fact that there is a lot more for us to do.”
Enns was equally impacted by the project.
“Wow. Lots to think about,” she said at its conclusion. “But these are stories and conversations we really have to be a part of. I have so much gratitude for the people who so bravely and with so much vulnerability told their stories. They were done in a way that was really respectful but grounded us in the reality of life, of people’s lives. We can’t go on living our lives separately from one another. But it’s more than conversations - we have to be mobilized into action.”
She said everyone has a responsibility to be part of the solution.
“We are all responsible to make change where we can make change,” said Enns. “It’s not to feel that ‘you can’t change the world so you’re not going to do anything’ mentality; it’s ‘what can you do, and where can you do it?’ It’s not enough to feel good that you went on a walk. You have to be part of the change. And what does that change look like in your area of influence? I know for me and the health authority we have some difficult conversations and we have to keep raising that bar and challenging each other.”
“I think what a program like Walk With Me does at a community level is really cement the fact that addiction and overdose can happen to everybody… and all of us have to understand that, and it’s help that people need - not condemnation, and not shame,” added Malcolmson.
There is another public walk in Courtenay at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 29. Meet at the Comox Valley Art Gallery. You can register for the event in advance at walkwithme.ca/portfolio