In British Columbia last year, 2,272 people died from toxic drugs, according to information released last week. More than 11,000 people have died of drug toxicity in the province since a public health emergency was declared in April 2016.
While many people associate these tragic deaths with the troubles of the Downtown Eastside, the reality is that Vancouver Coastal Health – the region that includes that neighbourhood as well as much of Metro Vancouver – accounted for 14% of the drug-related deaths in the province last year. Rural communities are disproportionately affected. Most disproportionately affected of all are Indigenous communities. The First Nations Health Authority reports that, while making up 3.2% of the province’s population, First Nations people comprised 15% of all toxic drug deaths in 2021 and 2022.
It is worth remembering that, while people have died from toxic drugs on the streets, they also have died in the living rooms of our most exclusive neighbourhoods, and they have died everywhere in between.
The City of Vancouver just announced $2.8 million for the hiring of 58 mental health workers and expanded programs to address frontline issues and public safety responses, according to Mayor Ken Sim. Also, this week, a new policy went into effect in British Columbia, under which possession of some illegal drugs will not result in arrest or charges. This is an innovative effort to reconsider the problem as a health issue, not a legal one.
While there may be disagreements and concerns about the approach the city, the province and the federal government are taking on the problems that plague individuals and communities around mental health, addictions, crime and safety, there has also been a degree of unnecessary and unwelcome cynicism. Too many seem to view the problems – and the people they affect – as an inconvenience to be swept away rather than as complex social issues requiring comprehensive responses.
In the search for explanations and solutions, there has been too frequent a tendency to blame the victim, to drive through troubled neighbourhoods in our city and province and condemn not the problems, or the context of those problems, but the people they affect.
In many instances, people suffering represent the contemporary impacts of policies and practices past and present. Land acknowledgments and efforts at reconciliation mean little to nothing if they are not accompanied by truth and by compassion for the long-term effects of these wrongs. Coming to terms with the impact on Indigenous peoples of residential schools, intergenerational trauma and generalized discrimination and lack of opportunity has opened many eyes to how these historical and contemporary realities have affected communities. Perhaps we have not done as well in recognizing how these impacts manifest in individuals.
People experiencing the harms of the drug poisoning crisis, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, come from a place of struggle and suffering. Really, every person is impacted in some way by circumstances of their social context, as well as their experiences. Some of the problems we experience are a result of individual health or vulnerabilities and others of systemic discrimination or falling through cracks in the education system or social safety net. Whatever the causes, they each require us to come together to address them.
Of course, these issues are not at all limited to our city. Across North America and elsewhere, urban and rural communities are troubled by substance issues and other problems, including a lack of safe and affordable housing, which is foundational to individual and communal well-being. If anyone had simple answers, they would have been adopted and implemented by now. This is an enormous challenge we must attempt to address humanely, compassionately and effectively without victim-blaming.
Organizations and many individuals in the Jewish community have been committed to these issues for some time and those collective efforts reflect the core Jewish value of tikkun olam, repairing the world, but they also reflect hakaim takim imo, “you shall surely lift him [and her] up.”
The tragic statistics confirm what we already know. They are a reminder, though, that a great deal remains to be done to address the problems and to reduce the social causes of the crisis. Trying new approaches that focus on compassion and justice is a right course. They may not work. But the cost of not trying is far too high.