Saint John hosts inaugural International Overdose Awareness Day

·3 min read
Julie Dingwell is executive director of Avenue B Harm Reduction in Saint John.
Julie Dingwell is executive director of Avenue B Harm Reduction in Saint John.

Saint John's inaugural commemoration of International Overdose Awareness Day was held in the pouring rain in King's Square on Wednesday.

Organizer Julie Dingwell, the executive director of Avenue B, said that seemed like an appropriate addition to the event.

"Someone asked why we didn't just cancel it and I said, 'Well, you know ... many of our clients, of which we have about 1,000, will spend the day out in the rain and the night in the rain. And so for us to be a few hours in the rain is literally a drop in the bucket.'"

"The message we always want to get out is that we want to keep people alive."
- Julie Dingwell, Avenue B

She said the hardship may have served as a reminder of how difficult some people's lives are while in the throes of addiction.

International Overdose Awareness Day began in 2001 in Australia as a way to raise awareness about overdoses, remember those lost to drug addiction, and acknowledge the grief of those left behind.

Jane Robertson/CBC
Jane Robertson/CBC

Although roughly 60 people die of drug overdoses each year in New Brunswick, "those 60 people are connected to 60 families," said Dingwell.

The number of people impacted by overdose deaths is probably "in the tens of thousands," she said.

Dingwell said organizers hope to make it an annual event.

Its inaugural edition attracted about 20 participating groups, including the Substance User Network of the Atlantic Region (SUNAR), Portage, Sophia Recovery Centre and Moms Stop the Harm. There were brown bag lunches given away as well as naloxone training demonstrations. Naloxone counteracts the effects of opioids like fentanyl and oxycodone.

One mom's story

Quispamsis resident Emily Bodechon, with the New Brunswick chapter of Moms Stop the Harm, was one of the event organizers.

Bodechon's eldest child is the reason she got involved. Although now in recovery and "living his best life," she said her son overdosed three times. And three times his life was saved by naloxone.

"His dad and I used to take turns travelling to wherever he was to visit with him, bring him gifts and stories from home in an effort to keep an open connection with him," she wrote on the group's website.

"During that time I became increasingly appalled by the treatment that he and his friends were receiving: store owners that were verbally abusive, constant harassment by police, disgusted looks from passersby. It was in those moments that I shamefully confronted my own misconceptions and biases toward those suffering from substance use disorder and the homeless and began speaking openly about his experience in an attempt to reduce some of the stigma."

Speaking after the event, Bodechon said it was "heartbreaking" to see the way her son was treated by others while he was using drugs.

"The message that I really want to get out to people is that dead people don't recover. And so if we can keep people alive through harm reduction, then they have a chance of living a fulfilling life once they come out on the other side," said Bodechon.

Carmen Groleau/CBC
Carmen Groleau/CBC

Dingwell has been advocating on behalf of drug users for decades and spreading the same message.

"People don't wake up and choose to start doing this and throw their lives away. They just don't it. It takes a series of events for people to become addicted and then … we don't care very much for the people that are in that situation, There's a lot of stigma and discrimination. People are often homeless and living very precariously on the margins."

She said the message has always been to keep people alive until they're ready to turn their lives around.

"The message we always want to get out is that we want to keep people alive."