In response to the toxic drug crisis that continues to ravage communities around B.C. and across Canada, the Comox Valley Art Gallery partnered with Thompson Rivers University, and AVI Health and Community Services to create a unique project called Walk With Me.
The project included story walks, an art exhibition and audio stories. Those with lived experience, along with frontline workers and family members, provided powerful insights to illustrate how the crisis has unfolded in the Comox Valley.
“We wanted to know what an art gallery could do to make change,” project director Sharon Karsten said in a presentation to Courtenay council Oct. 18. “This is a massive crisis that is taking out our loved ones left, right and centre.”
In 2016, the drug crisis was labeled a provincial emergency in B.C. It disproportionately impacts middle age men, Indigenous people, the unemployed, and those in trades and transportation. Karsten noted that close to 90 per cent of illicit drug toxicity deaths in B.C. from 2017-2020 contained fentanyl.
Last fall, the Walk With Me team hosted more than 32 Sharing Circles with the public, engaging with more than 500 participants. An ensuing report draws upon insights emerging from research accomplished in the Comox Valley project.
“It’s a blessing to be with the program,” said Darcy Honey, who has lived experience and has been with the program for about six months. He said Walk With Me is helping to change lives.
The Walk With Me team has a number of recommendations for governments to consider. These include the decriminalization of simple possession, a rollout of safe supply, and increased accessibility of recovery and OPS (Overdose Prevention Site) services.
Coun. Doug Hillian commended the team for its unique, comprehensive work.
“I think we all have a lot to learn about how to engage with people with lived experience,” Hillian said. “I believe you’ve given us the template.”
Karsten said the team has been working with emergency rooms throughout Island Health.
“We walk with frontline staff with these stories.”
The team is also conversing with North Island College, and has presented the idea to the Community Substance Use Strategy.
“There’s so much work to do, but we are finding open doors in these systems,” Karsten said. “But more work is needed as always.”