Peer-based user groups such as Drug War Survivors, which have long advocated against government drug policies, have recently been seen as leaders in harm reduction policy. Keri Coles/Black Press file photo

Overdose Crisis

Abbotsford’s Drug War Survivors help fledgling user group in Chilliwack

Peer-based user group recently mentored advocates from Chilliwack, who may kickstart a similar model

Abbotsford’s Drug War Survivors is sharing its success in fighting the overdose crisis with other jurisdictions, including neighbouring Chilliwack, through a sponsored mentorship program.

Peer-based user groups have been gaining momentum as widely accepted leaders in harm reduction. Although the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users and Drug War Survivors have histories of conflict with various levels of government, bureaucrats now come to both as partners to develop harm reduction policies.

Last year, the Community Action Initiative funded grants through the OPEN (overdose prevention and education network) program to help communities battle the overdose crisis, largely through peer-based groups.

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“They felt that it would be beneficial to the people that received that funding to get some mentorship from some groups that were stronger and more active,” said Amanda Bonella, Drug War Survivors program co-ordinator.

“There were some challenges, I think, particularly involving how to work with people with lived experience, and so they chose three organizations to be the mentors.”

Among those mentor groups, Drug War Survivors was chosen to help fledgeling organizations, along with the Canadian Association of People who Use Drugs and the Society of Living Illicit Drug Users out of Victoria.

“We had an application from Chilliwack, which was really cool because there’s been a lot of need for some work in Chilliwack and not a lot of support for it,” Bonella said.

That application came from Stó:lo Nation, which received an open grant from CAI.

Drug War Survivors, then, was to mentor the group for a week, which was broken up into two parts. That included one part before Christmas that involved conflict de-escalation training through Fraser Health, as well as the weekly general and steering committee meetings, and they returned early this year to finish the mentorship.

With that mentorship over, Bonella said Drug War Survivors is open to taking on more mentees through the program.

“It was an extraordinary experience; I’m sure it’ll be duplicated,” Bonella said, adding that while the mentorship is technically over, one of the women involved from Chilliwack will still be attending steering committee meetings.

“[That is] so that we don’t just end the mentorship and be like, ‘See you later.’ We want to stay connected because they have the intention of starting something in Chilliwack that is user-driven.”

No user-based group has been started in Chilliwack yet, Bonella said, but noted that an information session will be held on Feb. 19, with help from Drug War Survivors and Fraser Health to determine if there is interest in starting a user group there.

“The topic will be: Is there a need and desire to have basically something like Drug War Survivors in Chilliwack. We’re supporting it, but we’re not starting it. We want it to come from within.”

Beyond that, another member of the Drug War Survivors is heading out to Vancouver Island, near Campbell River, to start a similar group.

Josie Saunders, an Indigenous woman from the Campbell River area, has been a member of Drug War Survivors for years, but is returning home to bring a similar user-based model of organizing to Indigenous people in that area.

Find more of our coverage on the overdose crisis here.

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Dustin Godfrey | Reporter

@dustinrgodfrey

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