Walk With Me shows human side of toxic drug crisis

Walk With Me participants share their experiences as part of a recent walk in Campbell River. Photo, Comox Valley Art Gallery.

It’s easy to miss the human stories behind the toxic drug crisis.

The Comox Valley Art Gallery, NIC, the Comox Valley Community Foundation and other community partners are hoping people across the North Island will walk with them to see the people behind the crisis in a new way.

The arts-based research project, Walk With Me, takes people through downtown streets and parks of Island communities. Participants wear portable headsets to hear the stories people have faced because of a poisoned drug supply—struggles that are often invisible to many who walk along the streets every day.

After the walk, people are encouraged to gather in a circle to reflect and share their own stories in a safe space. They leave one seat open to represent those lost to the drug crisis.

“It’s all about the circle,” said Sharon Karsten, the Comox Valley Art Gallery’s project facilitator and Walk With Me initiator. “We’ve been finding our circles have been getting bigger.”

There are many paths that lead to the opiate crisis. From intergenerational effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and residential schools to stories that start with controlled substances or prescribed painkillers, each narrated story is personal, private and available for others to learn from.

“Creative practice … art practice is at the core of our work,” Karsten said.

The project started in 2019 through the Comox Valley Art Gallery, with public walks taking place in the Comox Valley and Campbell River through 2022. NIC started its partnership with Walk With Me with the support of the Comox Valley Community Foundation in 2021. The walks are open to the public, though the project has also organized specific ones for Island Health and NIC.

In 2022, NIC’s Centre for Research, Technology and Innovation (CARTI) received a grant through the College and Community Social Innovation Fund of $360,000 for Walk With Me. The grant for the next phase of the project was one of 76 announced by the Honourable François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry in October 2022.

“Phase Two builds on a strong collaborative history and practice established by the Walk With Me team,” said Kathleen Haggith, who co-leads the research, and serves as Dean of NIC’s Faculty of Health and Human Services. “We do this work in solidarity with those facing the crisis first-hand, and in memory of those we have lost.”

The research phase will put a human face on the increasing statistics for drug-related deaths, in the hope of informing a community and government response to the crisis.

“As toxic drug poisoning deaths continue to climb in BC, and in small cities, new ways of responding to the crisis are needed. Interventions addressing the crisis are often rolled out first in large urban centres, and in many cases fail to reach rural and remote areas. Many fail to recognize the unique challenges faced within these communities,” Haggith said.

At the project’s core are the voices and leadership of people with lived experience from the crisis. Other project goals include piloting artistic and inquiry-based interventions to mobilize change and generate engagement and increase awareness of the crisis through exhibition, education, community-building, systemic change and policy development.

Ultimately, Walk With Me will share lessons learned from the project and community engagement practices with small cities throughout the province.

For more information, on Walk With Me and other NIC research projects, visit nic.bc.ca/research.

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