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Duncan Walk with Me gives voice to vulnerable populations

Community members walk together, and listen together as those with lived experience surrounding the toxic drug crisis share their stories

Sometimes the best, and only way to walk in another person's shoes is to just listen to their story — we all have one.

The Walk with Me community action project was first formed in 2019 in response to the toxic drug poisoning crisis, aiming to help highlight the human dimensions of it as it unfolded. The initiative is made up of a group of artist-researchers, front-line workers and people with lived, and living experience who have united as they come to terms with the impact that the toxic drug crisis has on both individuals, and community groups.

"This project was sparked by the overwhelming loss of life being experienced in and around the Comox Valley Art Gallery, which led to the question: what can an art gallery do to make change?" said Walk with Me research administrative coordinator Christopher Hauschildt. "This question was asked to people with lived, and living experiences of substance use, with local harm reduction service providers, with medical health officers, and with family members who had lost loved ones — and from their ideas this project was formed."

It has grown in recent years and over the course of this last fiscal year, Walk with Me has hosted 62 walks across Vancouver Island and the Mainland with more than 750 participants. On June 11, Walk with Me took two separate groups of community members on a tour through the streets of Duncan, and a journey of better understanding. 

I attended the second session that began at 1:30 p.m. at the Cowichan Community Centre in Duncan. The event opened with a welcome song performed from members of Cowichan Tribes. Then individual headsets were handed out, and guests in attendance were given the option to listen to the collection of personal stories and struggles of those with lived experience surrounding addiction and stigma that lasted for a duration of 45 minutes. 

It is hard to put into the words the feeling of walking together in solidarity, ears closed to the world around us, while open to the vulnerable hearts of those sharing their tribulations and triumphs in our headphones, all while providing an eye-opening experience for those wanting to better understand and learn how we can band together to find solutions, community, and healing from this rising epidemic. As we walked through the streets of our community we passed several members of our vulnerable population, which only added to the personal stories that spoke volumes in our ears.

It was especially powerful for me as this event took place the day after the anniversary that I lost my own sister, and best friend to the toxic drug crisis. 

In B.C. in April of 2016 the toxic drug crisis was declared a national health emergency. Since then, more than 14,582 lives have been lost to this crisis in this province alone with more than 763 lives lost in the first four months of 2024. Since April 2016 this climbing crisis has taken the lives of more than 40,000 people across Canada. Many read these stats in the news and just see numbers, but every number is someone's loved one and special someone. Through this practice of story sharing, the 'Walk with Me' initiative has embarked on a journey of cultivating awareness, which will hopefully lead to much needed change.

One thing that definitely needs to change is the stigma surrounding our vulnerable unhoused population, and those struggling with addiction. This past winter, the 'not in my backyard attitudes' and debates about where a cold weather shelter should, or could be when temperatures dropped well below zero was a real testament to the stigmas surrounding these issues. We all come from different walks of life, and not everyone comes from a place of healthy environments and strong support systems. One gentleman who was sharing his story said it plain, simple, and poignantly — no one wakes up one day and decides to give homelessness a try, or to be in the throes of addiction.

Those in attendance included individuals who have lived experience, those who have lost loved ones, and those wanting to better understand and find solutions going forward. Hauschildt knows this journey too well as he began using substances at the tender age of 12, and counts his blessings that he was able to find the supports necessary to be in a better place by the age of 25.

"Wellness for myself is a daily practice and my dependencies and mental health are something I have learned to coexist with in a healthier way," said Hauschildt. "I feel honoured to be a part of this project. Making room in this world for the voices of those who are often made to feel invisible is vital in combating the stigma, bias, and judgments that people are often pushed into believing; and without those voices at the decision making table, I do not feel that there is a way out of this crisis."

"It seems incredible that there are some people whose lives are not touched by toxic drugs, while some families are going though hell, and feel there is no real help," said Grace Golightly who attended the afternoon event.

After the walk all in attendance gathered in a sharing circle, homemade soup was served to add to the nourishment that hearts had just received through this experience of listening to members of these vulnerable populations bare their souls. Those who wished to do so shared something personal or reflected on what they had experienced through the community of a sharing circle that last approximately 45 minutes. All coming from different walks of life, there was a feeling of unity as all those in attendance left the event with a lot to reflect on.

International Overdose Awareness Day will be celebrating its 23rd year on Aug. 31, where walks, and other events will be held throughout communities across the globe to help raise awareness around the toxic drug crisis, and to honour all of those lost to it. Look for events happening in your area at

To learn more about 'Walk with Me' and for more information on future events that will start up again in the fall visit

"There is a strong need in our community for de-stigmatization around substance use, as stigma is literally killing people," said Hauschildt. "Our hope is that people walk away more connected to the humanity of those experiencing this crisis. That they come to see one another not as others, but as the members of someone's family in which they are. We hope to reduce stigma, close gaps, and ultimately reduce the mortality rates for those who use substances through trying out a model where Indigenous and peer leadership are at the forefront of creating new pathways forward. We see Walk With Me as a starting point, and would be happy to work with communities when invited, but also encourage people to seek out and get involved in local Harm Reduction initiatives. This may include working on issues related to housing disparity, or food security, and if nothing else, just be kind. Everyone has a story that we cannot see."

About the Author: Chadd Cawson

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