Vancouver man's outreach project aiming to tackle the opioid crisis inspires First Nations leaders
TORONTO -- Last fall, James Harry was walking through the poorest neighborhood of Vancouver alone in his mission to find and help members of his community who were struggling with drug addiction.
But since word spread of how he is tackling the opioid crisis one person at a time, First Nations leaders have joined his walk to see what he is dealing with.
Harry is from the Haisla Nation, which is around 16 hours north of Vancouver by car. Since 2017, he has been an outreach worker in the city, singlehandedly seeking out at-risk members of the Haisla Nation in the Downtown Eastside to talk to them, hear their stories and difficulties with drug abuse, and help them on the road to recovery.
One of the reasons that Harry has fostered such a close connection with those he talks to is that he knows where they’re coming from.
He used to be addicted to crack cocaine -- and it nearly took his life. He’s been sober for five years now.
“I believe that is why I’m so passionate about (outreach),” he told CTV News. “I used to be down here myself.”
Not everyone he tries to help is open to it, but those who are have entered rehab, found housing, or returned home.
British Columbia has the highest amount of drug-related deaths in the country. And the problem is linked to poverty; an addictions specialist, Dr. Keith Ahamad, told the Canadian Press in 2019 that the life expectancy for young men in Vancouver’s poor Downtown Eastside differs from the life expectancy in the west side by 17 years.
Used needles lying abandoned on doorsteps is not an uncommon sight in the neighbourhood.
“This is the reality of (some of) our people,” Harry said as he led a group through Eastside, gesturing to a cluster of tents.
“I grew up with a lot of these people. I don’t turn anybody away.”
The B.C. provincial government declared the overdose crisis a public emergency in 2016.
Across Canada, around 14,000 people have died from opioid related causes between Jan. 2016 and June 2019. In the first six months of 2019, over 2,000 people died of accidental overdoses. Eighty per cent of the total deaths in those six months involved fentanyl, which street drugs are often laced with.
Indigenous people are also disproportionately affected by the crisis. According to statistics from B.C.’s First Nations Health Authority, Indigenous people are four times more likely to die from an overdose than all other groups combined.
A FNHA report from 2017 explained that there are numerous, overlapping reasons that contribute to First Nations peoples in B.C. being more at risk for opioid abuse. Racism often prevents Indigenous people from receiving proper health care, and intergenerational trauma stemming from Canada’s historical and ongoing treatment of Indigenous peoples contributes to a higher level of mental health struggles, which have long been linked to substance abuse.
Harry said that urban Indigenous people often feel disconnected from their home nation, and he wants to change that.
When he talks to members of the Haisla Nation who are living on the streets in Eastside, he says it provides the support of “your own people coming to look out for you, coming to make sure that you’re OK. And hopefully bring you home.”
One person who credits Harry as having a profound impact is Edwin Pfoh. Pfoh was in bad shape when he met Harry through Harry’s outreach.
“He's actually saved my life. If it wasn't for James right now, I wouldn't be on this planet,” Pfoh told CTV News in October.
Harry’s success has sparked interest from other communities. Heiltsuk Nation leader Reg Moody and Stephanie Martin from the Nisga’a Nation are two who have travelled to the city to observe Harry’s methods.
Both want people from their community to work alongside him, to hopefully help more First Nations people.
“We have been really inspired by the work that James is doing,” Moody said.
For Martin, it’s the human connection that makes the difference.
“Building that relationship with the individual so that they feel that they deserve, or are worthy … of the services provided.”