Joe Thorne presents a drum to North Cowichan/Duncan RCMP Const. Pam Bolton in appreciation for her efforts in the community. (Submitted)

Protest calls attention to opioid ‘pandemic’ in Cowichan

Four reported overdoses and two deaths of Cowichan Tribes members over the weekend helped spur rally

As leaders in the Cowichan Valley — including Cowichan Tribes Chief William Seymour — search for help from the federal government to deal with the ongoing opioid crisis, a grassroots movement against drugs is burgeoning in the community as well.

Four reported overdoses and two deaths of Cowichan Tribes members over the weekend, including a girl in her early teens and another individual, described as being in their late 20s or early 30s, helped spur a rally in front of the Cowichan Tribes offices on Allenby Road on Monday, with members demanding action against drugs and dealers.

“We’ve had so many people saying what we should do [about the drug problem],” said rally organizer Joe Thorne. “Well, I’m doing it. It starts here.”

Thorne is a trustee for School District 79 and the B.C. School Trustees Association’s first-ever First Elder and Knowledge Keeper, and a former Duncan city councillor. He didn’t know the young girl who died personally, but was still touched by her loss.

“Somebody gave her something,” he said. “Now she’s gone. Peer pressure is a dangerous thing for someone who’s not prepared for it.”

Thorne was joined by various other community members throughout the day, including the girl’s father. He gestured to his two cousins, Gwen and Brenda Thorne, as he talked about how his movement is going to expand.

“It’s just us three, but it’s going to grow,” he said. “We plan on cleaning these people out of the Cowichan Valley.”

Because of conditions on the reserve, the economic situation, and depression, young people “turn to things that aren’t healthy for them,” Thorne said. He’s not blaming the victims, but rather those who are providing the drugs.

“I understand addiction,” he said. “But they’re also being enabled.”

The dealers, Thorne notes, are “from everywhere.”

“The sad thing is we know that some are living on reserve,” he commented.

Thorne was pleased to get a lot of support from people passing by, from honking horns to face-to-face chats.

“A lot of people have been stopping,” he said. “They say they want it, too. They want to heal our community. They want our streets clean. They want our children safe.”

Many of those people have personal stories of the ravages drugs have taken on the community.

“It’s been emotional hearing some of their stories,” Thorne said.

Thorne’s concerns aren’t just about First Nations kids, either. He’d like to expand this movement throughout the Cowichan Valley.

“These idiots trying to recruit our children, they’re hurting everybody,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what colour you are.”

Chief Seymour is pleased to see more members stepping up in a difficult time.

“I’m glad to see the community members take interest in what’s going on,” he said. “If the community can do it and help us in these causes, that’s very appreciated. I’m glad to see the interest. The only thing I’m sad about is that it’s taken two young people dying for it to happen.”

Seymour acknowledged that drug use among Cowichan Tribes members has been a concern for a long time, but it has gotten worse because the COVID-19 pandemic has made the supply chain more dangerous.

“If you look anywhere in Canada, every community has the same issue because of what’s being sold in the streets today,” he said. “Because the borders are closed, the regular supplies aren’t getting here. Someone is making their own supplies in Canada, and it’s deadly.”

The uptick in overdoses did not come as a surprise.

“We expected the increase in deaths because if what is being sold,” Seymour said. “We need funding to increase safety of the community.”

The Cowichan Leadership Group, consisting of Seymour, MP Alistair MacGregor, MLA Sonia Furstenau, the mayors of Duncan, North Cowichan and Lake Cowichan, Cowichan Valley Regional District Vice-Chair Ian Morrison, School District 79 Chair Candace Spilsbury, and representatives of Island Health and the RCMP has sent two letters to federal minister of health Patty Hajdu, most recently on July 2, asking for funding through the Substance Use and Addictions Program.

“It’s important the government knows,” Seymour said. “Everybody is trying to get funding. The government isn’t giving funding to anybody. Everybody is struggling with it. We’re hoping that, moving forward, the government will find some funds for us to work with.”

Chief and council also recently passed a resolution to create a bylaw that will give them the authority to work with the RCMP to remove drug dealers and other “nuisances” from homes on the reserve. The bylaw, which is still in draft form, will be implemented under emergency conditions due to the pandemic, and won’t have to go through Ottawa for approval.

Seymour hopes that the success in keeping Canadian communities safe during the coronavirus outbreak can inspire a better response to the opioid crisis, which he also calls a pandemic.

“We need to ask how we can take what’s going on in regard to COVID-19 and continue that with the opioid crisis,” he said.

In the meantime, Seymour wants to emphasize that certain drugs are more dangerous now than they might usually be.

“The community needs to be clear,” he said. “The drug supply is very toxic right now.”

Seymour underscored that the only safe place to use drugs is the safe injection site on Trunk Road, and encouraged community members to go to the site, at least to have their drugs tested. If they are going to use drugs, they shouldn’t use them alone, and make sure they have a naloxone kit for overdoses.

Any support from the community is vital in addressing the drug crisis, Seymour added.

“We do need that support from the community,” he said. “We need to let the government know we are in dire need. We always say that one death is too many. Let’s not wait any longer.”

On Tuesday, Joe Thorne led a march from the Cowichan Tribes offices to the Mulaqw Road area near Boys Road, joined by dozens of other community members. He wants to keep growing the movement.

“Anyone who wants to help, they’re welcome to come on board,” he said. “The community needs tomorrow’s kids.”

Funding for a safe drug supply pilot program for the Cowichan Valley from the federal government was announced on Wednesday, July 15. (See page 3)

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Joe Thorne, centre, and cousins Brenda and Gwen Thorne express their frustration with drugs on Cowichan Tribes land. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)

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