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Council cans financial support request for outreach program, approves letter of support

Timothy Schafer Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
By Timothy Schafer Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
August 20th, 2021

The largest current public health problem in the country won’t be receiving any direct financial support or partnership creation from Nelson municipal government.

City council voted Tuesday night in its regular business meeting against a request by the Rural Empowered Drug Users Network (REDUN) Outreach Program for support to continue and expand its activities in the Nelson area, with the organization seeking both financial support — to allow for service expansion — and also a “partnership and endorsement,” according to a city staff report.

REDUN is one of the programs which offers help and support for those caught up in the opioid crisis, which has been called the largest public health problem in modern times.

“The partnership/endorsement piece is in essence asking council to publicly endorse the project and encourage community support,” the report read.

There is no grant-in-aid policy — a way to offer funding to those community groups that request help — at the city, and any community groups seeking funding are subsequently referred to the annual Columbia Basin Trust Community Initiative Program.

“With regard to publicly endorsing the project, staff note that council does not typically offer general support to projects but rather issues letters of support for grants or in response to other specific requests,” the report advised council.

A general resolution supporting the project was not something council would typically do.

However, a request from REDUN that city council send a letter to the federal government urging it to declare the overdose crisis a national public health emergency was honoured.

Coun. Nicole Charlwood felt the letter should then be released to the community to show council support.

“What if council did instead was to include naming REDUN in the letter to the federal government, and requesting funding for such organizations, and then publishing said letter to our community so that we are, in a sense, endorsing what they are asking, but it is within the frame of the letter?” she pitched to council.

Normally a letter of support would be released to the public for viewing only upon request, noted city staff.

Charlwood said she would prefer to see the letter released to the public and put on social media.

“Because it provides endorsement and shows we are supportive of the concern, and shows we are supportive of federal funding being directed toward organizations such as REDUN,” she stated.

But medical and public health delivery was a provincial jurisdiction, noted Coun. Keith Page.

“So I wonder about the effectiveness of sending this (letter) off to the federal government,” he said. “In the province this is already declared a public health emergency. Do we feel this is going to have a result by sending it up to the federal government?”

“I’m not sure we can answer that,” said Mayor John Dooley. “We just send (letters) off and hope that somebody pays attention to it, that’s as much as we can do at this point in time,” he replied.

The request to send a letter to the federal government came from the REDUN organization, said city staff.

City manager Kevin Cormack said the city’s letter needed to reflect REDUN’s intent, to ask the federal government to have a discussion with the provinces and move the issue across the country.

“They are looking for some federal leadership to work with provinces to get this on provincial radars,” he said. “If we add the context it might provide a little more support.”

The letter of support motion was passed by city council, while the motion to support REDUN Outreach to continue and expand activities in the Nelson area was defeated.

A look back

Coordinators of ANKORS’ program Rural Empowered Drug Users Network (REDUN) — for current and former drug users, and their friends, family and supporters — called on the city at the June committee-of-the-whole meeting to add its voice to a nation-wide message asking the federal government to recognize the crisis and provide corresponding funding.

Amber Streukens, harm reduction peer navigator at ANKORS, felt there was something that could be done now to turn the tide on the rising number of overdose deaths.

“A safe pharmaceutical supply of drugs that people actually use will have a serious impact on reducing overdose deaths,” she said during a city council meeting in June.

Decriminalization of the drugs is an essential first step to getting through the “muck,” she added, but it won’t have the same impact in reducing overdose fatalities.

“People who are at risk of overdose are, not all but many, diagnostically considered to have a medical condition. We have criminalized the substance of a medical condition through the criminalization of possession, which prevents people from getting help,” she stated.

A safe supply is the number one thing that will save lives right now, said Tammy McLean, who heads up the Opioid Agonist Therapy Clinic in Trail.

Fentanyl was found in 85 per cent of the drugs used in overdose deaths.

“We are finding fentanyl in all street drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine and other opioids,” she said.

McLean asked city council to lend its voice to the call on the federal government to “acknowledge that the opioid crisis is the largest public health (problem) in our lifetime,” with over 7,000 deaths since 2016.

The city needs to petition the Canadian government to declare the overdose crisis a public health emergency, she added, so that it’s taken seriously and funded appropriately to reduce harms and deaths for all Canadians.

“The overdose crisis shows no sign of abating, so we are asking Nelson city council to join Salmo, Trail and Rossland to declare this a serious public health emergency and put just as many resources into solving this as they have done for COVID,” she said.

The highest total of deaths for the year due to illicit drug toxicity in the Kootenay Boundary was in 2020 at 21, rising from the previous high of 14 recorded the previous two years and 17 in 2017.

Last year 283 deaths from illicit drug toxicity were recorded across the Interior Health Authority region, and 1,716 overdose deaths in B.C. itself last year, both the highest recorded.

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