In late August 2022, more than 50 people gathered in Sechelt’s Hackett Park to remember those lost to the overdose crisis in the first event of its kind on the Coast.
Local peer support worker Brian Mackenzie called it a “breakthrough” event, as those who had lost people to toxic drugs or who were people with lived experience of drug use could meet and support one another on International Overdose Awareness Day.
While the landscape of drug and mental health support has changed in the years since the toxic drug supply public health emergency was declared – even more since the COVID pandemic’s start – advocates say there’s still more to be done.
The overdose prevention site
The Sunshine Coast’s first public safe consumption site opened in July 2020 in response to years of community advocacy and an increase in drug poisonings.
The Overdose Prevention Site (OPS) is operated by RainCity and Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) with trained staff to monitor people while they use illicit drugs so as to prevent, or help people recover from, overdoses. The OPS had a setback earlier this year when the site temporarily closed because of a fire. However, the long-sought service has since returned — and is mobile.
A Sprinter van on Hightide Avenue has been in use for about a month, Sean Ramsay, the Sunshine Coast Community Action Team coordinator, said on May 9.
Planning for the van began before the fire and subsequent water damage in February temporarily closed the Wharf Avenue building that housed 35 shelter beds, the safe consumption site and a pizza business. Having the OPS available as a mobile site can now help prevent location-specific closures.
“Essentially, it gives the Overdose Prevention Site a more stable home and it’s able to be moved around in case of necessity,” Ramsay said. The OPS is open seven days a week between the hours of 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. and services intravenous and smoking users.
“Having a stable site is the most important thing,” Ramsay said of the OPS. “Consistency for folks is really huge knowing where and when they can go to use safely. Having a consistent location with consistent hours that people know helps immensely… especially [for] people who are experiencing homelessness.”
Supervised consumption services — overdose prevention sites — aim to offer a safer environment for people who would otherwise use drugs alone. VCH said these efforts have improved community safety by reducing public drug use without an increase in crime or violence. Locations for overdose prevention sites are chosen based on communities with higher density of individuals at risk of overdose.
Prior to the temporary closure in February 2023, the OPS saw an average of nearly 300 visits per month. That number decreased to around 100 visits per month after the fire, but is returning to 2022 levels now that the mobile OPS is active, according to VCH.
As for overdoses or toxic drug poisonings on the Sunshine Coast, Ramsay said things seem to have stabilized a bit. He said such situations seem to come in waves, tapering off until a big spike.
Mackenzie and husband Kenn Quayle, of i2i Peer Support, have long been advocates for safe supply and harm reduction.
Last year, through a VCH program – and through the efforts of members of the local Opioid Prevention Task Force (created in 2020) –, they were prescribed fentanyl patches. The patches release a steady low dose of fentanyl – not enough to "get high" but enough to prevent withdrawal and function normally. The access has had a stabilizing effect for the couple.
Before, “We were spending all of our money on drugs and we couldn't sleep because withdrawal kicks in after two hours – so now we can afford things like clothes and the occasional night out,” said Mackenzie. He said if the patches didn’t save their lives, then they’ve saved somebody’s lives. The couple had been begging for such access for months and with the illicit supply growing more toxic, having a hard time coping.
But, for people who are less stable, people with no housing or in supportive housing, who are surrounded by users, it’s difficult to remain just on the patches, said Mackenzie. “Because they're so relatively weak compared to what is on the street.”
“If people can pick up something more similar to what they get on the illicit market, then they're less likely to dabble in the toxic drug supply,” he said.
While other types of pharmaceutical fentanyl would be preferable to the patches, which are rather inconvenient and uncomfortable, “They're certainly better than risking your life on the illicit market,” said Mackenzie.
The longtime peers have also long talked of the need to break the stigma around drug use – important as a great danger is people using drugs alone. “People just don't know what's going on with the person next to you at work or across the street. Folks want to keep quiet about it,” said Quayle.
Mackenzie pointed to the further stigma around homelessness, which exacerbates dangers for the vulnerable population. “We need housing,” said Mackenzie. “These people are living here anyway and just pushing them out to the boundaries is not going to make anything better for anybody ultimately.”
Asked if there’s been a shift on the Coast, within communities of people who use drugs, the couple said there have been positive developments in the past few months. The i2i project is also benefiting from funding to provide “street degree” for peers, naloxone and other training and outreach (as are other organizations on the Coast).
shíshálh Nation looks for solutions
The Sunshine Coast doesn’t have a government-sanctioned treatment centre (though Coastal Recovery Community in Gibsons is a private facility treating men) but one is on the horizon.
The shíshálh Nation is working with the First Nations Housing Authority, BC Housing and Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation in partnership with the Squamish, Musqueam Tsleil-Waututh First Nations to build a treatment centre. The proposed facility’s first phase would see 20 beds with the potential to expand. The project includes a cultural aspect and would be open to shíshálh Nation members and members of other nearby First Nations.
“There’s probably not a week that goes by where I don’t have two or three families talking to me, very upset, ‘We need to do something,’” lhe hiwus yalxwemult (Chief Lenora Joe) told Coast Reporter. “We can’t continue to see our youth go down that road and get stuck there.”
yalxwemult said the Nation has seen good attendance at its existing addiction services. The Nation’s health department has two addictions counsellors, three or four outreach workers and a number of culturally-relevant programs, including a men’s group, women’s group and youth group.
Addressing addiction also requires addressing the root cause, whether that’s mental illness or trauma. “When people talk about addiction, it’s not just the addiction,” yalxwemult said. So the Nation has brought on a number of counselling staff and sobriety coaches who can check in daily with people.
“I think our biggest concern is that there are still a number of community members who are actively involved in drug use,” she said, who are not reaching out for support. It can be difficult for those stuck in the cycle, yalxwemult added.
“We are at the stage where we are looking at all kinds of avenues, reaching out to our neighbouring nations… to look at what ideas are out there,” she said.
One of those options looks at the overdose and addiction situation through a legal lens: How can the Nation restrict who comes into their community? yalxwemult gave an example of one woman who is working on her sobriety, but friends come over offering her drugs. “That’s a slippery slope for somebody who’s in recovery.”
“What we’re finding is that there’s a lot of non-band members who are not welcome in our community… So we’re trying to look at ways on how we can have the unwanted people not come into our community,” yalwemult.
The Nation is exploring issuing trespass notices to known drug dealers advising them they are not allowed on Nation land (and informing the RCMP). The Nation would also send a letter to homeowners or residents advising them that the Nation is aware of an active drug dealer in their premises and that consequences relating to housing could follow.
“That is our last resort. We would never ever want to evict or kick anybody out of their homes, but what we’re hoping is that they would think about that consequence.
“It’s not an easy decision, but we’re at the point where we just have to start trying things because we’ve talked about it for so long,” yalxwemult said.
Other options the Nation is exploring include peacekeepers and blockwatch, and whether to add security cameras.
“We’re doing our darndest and try to battle it but, wow, that’s a huge, huge project,” yalxwemult said. “At the end of the day it’s our children who are suffering. We’re trying to change that pattern.”
There were six bad months last year where several young shíshálh Nation members were lost to drug overdoses, yalxwemult said. “It’s very, very close to our heart.”
By the numbers
The BC Emergency Health Services recorded increasing numbers of potential overdose/poisoning calls in communities on the lower Sunshine Coast between 2016 and 2022. Numbers for Gibsons and Sechelt showed an increase from 42 calls in 2016 to 62 in 2017, 73 in both 2018 and 2019, and then a jump up to 111 in 2020, the first year of the pandemic. In 2021, numbers remained higher than 100 at 120 calls. BC EHS recorded 185 overdose/poisoning related calls in Sechelt and Gibsons in 2022.
The count for Gibsons ranged from 17 to 43 calls over the years, but the number of calls jumped more dramatically in Sechelt, where 25 potential overdose/poisoning calls were reported in 2016. That number held at 39 calls in both 2017 and 2018. Between 2020 and 2019, the calls more than doubled from 41 to 87. Calls related to overdose/poisoning events in Sechelt nearly doubled again from 83 calls in 2021 to 142 in 2022.
Then in December of 2022, four people on the lower Sunshine Coast were reported to have died due to toxic drugs.
So far this year, data from the BC Coroners Service shows there were two unregulated drug toxicity deaths in the Sunshine Coast Local Health Area (LHA) between January and March of 2023. Previous annual reports were six in 2018, three in 2019, more than doubling to seven in 2020, up again to 12 in 2021, followed by nine in 2022.
In addition to the OPS in Sechelt, people can also access harm reduction supplies through local pharmacies, outreach support workers and community clinics, VCH said, which can be found at https://towardtheheart.com/site-finder.
‘Pain is complicated’
“Drug use is normal. People use drugs. And pain is complicated,” Mackenzie told the crowd that August day in 2022.
He later added, “Being with someone in pain is difficult. And if we don’t know that person, it is easy to turn away, especially with all the distractions today.”
This article is part of an in-depth, provincewide journalistic effort by Glacier Media to examine the scope, costs and toll of the opioid and toxic drug crisis in British Columbia – a public health emergency that has taken at least 11,807 lives since 2016. If you or someone you know is in an emergency, call 911. If you need help with substance abuse, call the B.C. government's alcohol and drug information and referral service at 1-800-663-1441. It's available 24 hours a day.
– With files from Bronwyn Beairsto and Sophie Woodrooffe