By Chadd Cawson
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Akisqnuk First Nation will be hosting a Harm Reduction workshop through First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) on May 27 from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

The workshop is for all their members, to be held at Akisqnuk First Nation Band Hall adjacent to the Columbia River. Harm reduction looks at different policies, programs and practices that will reduce risk and harm that are associated when using psychoactive substances such as opioids. 

The world can be a hard place for people as we all come from different circumstances. While for some this may mean recreational use, many turn towards opioids as an attempt to heal, cope, or escape from what may haunt them in their past or present life. International Overdose Awareness Day is a mere three-months away on Aug. 31, where people across the world honour and remember those who died due to the opioid crisis that is sweeping the nation. 

The Harm Reduction workshop will be facilitated by Indigenous Harm Reduction Educator Tonya Robitaille. Robitaille works with all the Interior Nations through FNHA and will facilitate these workshops upon invitation to any community. A huge component of this workshop is Naloxone training, where participants are taught how to safely administer intramuscular injections and the nasal spray of Naloxone. 

“I think it’s super important for nation members to attend and really anyone that has been affected by the toxic drug poisoning crisis which now seems to be everyone I know,” says Robitaille. It’s really important for service providers to get a good understanding of how colonization has played such a role in our First Nations people dying at a disproportionate rate of toxic drug supply.”

Over the last two years the pandemic may have stolen all the spotlight, but the seriousness and the emergency of the toxic opioid epidemic has only worsened, since COVID insisted on even more isolation. There was a 119 per cent increase in toxic drug deaths from 2019 to 2020 when the pandemic began. In British Columbia 254 First Nations people lost their lives at the hands of toxic drugs compared to the 116 the year prior. FNHA studies show that First Nations people died at 5.3 times the rate of other BC residents in 2020. This has an impact even more so on First nations women as they have died at 9.9 times the rate of other female BC residents. The worldwide opioid epidemic has had a devastating impact on all walks of life, particularly First Nations and it has had a blind eye turned to it for too long.

“There has been a fair number of overdoses in the Interior since 2016,” says Robitaille. “I don’t even like to use the word overdose anymore because that implies the blame is on the person who is using substances. At this point in time the blame and the onus are on our government for not stepping up and addressing this crisis in its seventh year now as an absolute emergency and providing safe supply for people who use substances.”

Last year the FNHA distributed 695 nasal naloxone kits to 11 different First Nation communities and organizations in the Interior, as well as 497 doses of nasal naloxone to individuals through community pharmacies. Each kit contains two doses. “Harm reduction keeps people alive. It gives people dignity and a sense of belonging and that they’re still valued members of our communities,” says Robitaille. “It helps people feel that they are loved and cared for no matter what their choices are in life, and that’s really important.”

There has been an unfair stigma around substance use and deaths to toxic drug poisoning for far too long. Harm reduction workshops have not always been so easily accessible, and far too many lives have been lost. International Overdose Awareness Day falls on Aug 31 every year, where people hold events, such as walks in their community, tie purple ribbons, and wear purple to honour their loved ones that have fallen to this epidemic; those that didn’t have safe resources and training.

“I really hope this workshop shifts people’s perspectives and helps us all reduce the harm for people who are using substances,” says Robitaille. “That it gives people the skills to have these difficult conversations with our loved ones, and with leadership and it also enables people to skillfully use naloxone to save people’s lives.”