A new Indigenous-led overdose prevention site at Cheam First Nation near Chilliwack is the first of its kind to open in B.C.
Set up to serve those who use substances with “culturally safe care,” the site will help prevent overdoses, and drug poisonings with specially trained staff who can also do drug-testing.
“The heart-wrenching impact of the toxic drug crisis on our people, families, and communities requires a radical, multi-pronged response,” said Cheam Chief Andrew Victor, in an Aug. 31 news release.
Operating from a white van parked outside the band office at 52161 West Victor Drive in Rosedale, the new service is open to First Nations, Métis, and all residents of Cheam, as well as residents of Chilliwack, Agassiz, Rosedale and nearby communities.
Mental health and addiction issues have been a priority for Cheam leadership for several years, the chief noted.
Since Victor was elected to council eight years ago, they’ve been actively looking for ways to expand harm reduction as a community, while reducing systemic barriers and addressing service gaps.
“Our strategies must evolve to reduce harm and deaths,” Victor said.
Project partners include Cheam First Nation, First Nations Health Authority, and Fraser Health.
Victor explained in a followup interview that they started out on this journey two and half years ago, having expressed a keen interest in bringing this type of public-health service to the Cheam community.
“There was funding made available to municipalities,” the chief remembered. “None of the municipalities pursued the opportunity, so it was made available to First Nations.”
The partners signed a ‘memorandum of understanding’ to establish the OPS site at Cheam, which also also provides an opportunity for additional supports and services, like drug testing with fentanyl test strips and a FTIR spectrometer.
The new service opened Sept. 1 at Cheam featuring a customized van in which people can safely use and inject substances, witnessed by trained staff.
Monitored inhalation services are also available, but in a separate tent outside the van.
The unique vision is to “surround users of the site” with traditional cultural supports and “culturally safe care,” with outreach workers and peer support workers on-site who are trained to reverse overdoses.
Staff are also trained to refer folks to other appropriate health and social services that weave culture, community, teachings, and connection to the land, into care.
“Given the racism within the healthcare system, it’s important for Cheam to serve clients based on our cultural teachings and values,” Victor said. “As a community, this service will provide us a chance to grow in our teachings to love and care for people.”
Are there any concerns about opening the service up to the wider community?
“Yes, there will be some concerns about strangers coming into our community for this public health service, but we must follow our teachings,” Victor added. “It is important that we journey together in a good way and care for each human being with a good heart and a good mind.”