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New West project to commemorate lives lost to overdose crisis

An overdose memorial is in the works to ensure local folks who have died in the opioid crisis aren’t forgotten.
Peer Network overdose crisis
Myke, a member of the Peer Network is looking foward to seeing the results of the New Westminster Overdose Memorial, which will remember New West residents who have died of overdoses.

An overdose memorial is in the works to ensure local folks who have died in the opioid crisis aren’t forgotten.

The New Westminster Overdose Community Action Team – Peer Network is assembling a memorial to commemorate the many lives that have been lost to the overdose crisis. The Peer Network states that, since 2016, at least 95 people in New West have had their lives cut short due to the contaminated drug supply.

Myke, a member of the Peer Network, said he’s lost some really good friends to the opioid crisis.

“A couple of them, I had known them, gosh, since Christ was a kid. We knew each other when we were kids and growing up together. I’m an antique – I’m past 50,” he says. “I don’t even know how many people have passed on, but in the time that it started happening with the fentanyl, I don’t know one or two people, I know like 25 people or more. That’s just over a couple of years' period of time. Some of the people I have worked with them. I knew their families. They knew my family. This wasn’t expected or anything like that.”

While there are all kinds of mosaics and plaques commemorating people around New West, Myke said nothing exists to remember many of those who’ve lost their lives to the overdose crisis.

“I thought it would be cool to have some kind of memorial for the people that have passed on,” he said.

The Peer Network is inviting community members to submit art, writing or photos that will be framed and mounted on the New Westminster Overdose Memorial.

“Every submission represents the story of someone who will be remembered in our hearts. We want to provide our community an opportunity to reflect on what we hope to accomplish together in creating a safe and inclusive community for everyone,” said a notice about the project. “We recognize that each person who has passed away has a story and a lesson for us. Each person has left loved ones behind. Acknowledging our community members is critical, as with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are again seeing increasing rates of overdose deaths; the highest since March of last year.”

On June 11, the BC Coroners Service reported on illicit drug toxicity deaths and fentanyl-detected drug deaths to the end of May 2020. The 170 illicit drug toxicity deaths reported in May is the highest monthly total ever in British Columbia.

“I think about them every day,” Myke said of his friends. “There is something – if I’m driving around town, walking around town – that triggers me. Remember this, remember that.”

Submissions for the overdose memorial are due by July 31. The goal is to unveil the memorial in time for International Overdose Awareness Day on Aug. 31 and to display it somewhere in New West in September, which is Recovery Month.

An artist who is affiliated with the Arts Council of New Westminster will artistically assemble the submissions onto the six-foot by seven-foot wooden panel.

Courtney Pankratz, coordinator of the New Westminster Overdose Community Action Team, said a memorial will include a purple heart, representing compassion and the colour of overdose awareness, and lines in the heart, which represent the lifesavers who administer naloxone and save the lives of some people who are overdosing.

Myke is looking forward to seeing the “celebration of life” completed and displayed in the community.

“It’s so people don’t forget,” he said, “and so the people who haven’t forgotten have a place to have their friend’s name or picture, or whatever. Somebody was a really good friend to somebody.”

Pankratz said everyone who has been impacted by the overdose crisis is welcome to contribute to the memorial project. While some people may think that downtown New West is the area most impacted by the overdose crisis, she said substance use is prevalent across all demographics.

“It may be more visible among folks who do not have anywhere else to go.  There have been many lives lost to a contaminated drug supply, and much of this is kept hidden,” she said. “About 80% of overdose fatalities occur in a private or other residence. Stigma can keep us from talking about substance use openly, which pushes people to use alone, and places them at even higher risk.  The overdose memorial is one way for us to capture the many lives that have been impacted by this epidemic, and also contribute to ongoing stigma reduction. We’d like to reach as many people as possible, and invite them to participate.”

Anyone wanting to contribute to the project can submit art, writing or photos to the Lower Mainland Purpose Society by emailing courtney.pankratz@purposesociety.org or dropping in to 40 Begbie St. People are asked to include a paragraph with their submission, and, if possible, their contact information (name and phone number), but submissions without this information will still be accepted.