Photo by Miles Cave/Flickr

Peter Stockland: At overdose prevention centre, success is measured by every breath

  • February 7, 2019

On a recent Saturday morning visit to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, a person mummy-wrapped in a dragonfly blue blanket lay motionless a few feet from the corner of Hastings and Main. 

My tour guide, Ronnie Grigg, did a quick appraisal, appeared confident the individual was only sleeping, so led me west along Hastings up the slight hill that starts at about the Patricia Hotel and descends through a zone of poverty and suffering that rivals the worst the world has on offer.

“I call this the Christian end,” he said. “It’s where the churches offer help here. I think some of them go a bit too far in making people sing for their supper, but then I’ve got personal history with that.”

Ronnie, a large man with an apostolic succession length of beard, was showing me around to help with research I was doing for a article. He lives, works and saves people’s lives in the neighbourhood. He’s also a manager at the Overdose Prevention Society, well down the slope from the Christian end in the jagged heart of opiate territory. He was here when the fentanyl bomb went off. He was among those running out in darkness and rain to try to rescue the drug’s victims as they lay dying in back alley puddles.

“I grew up in a small town near Sudbury. If there had been as many deaths in that little town as there were in this neighbourhood, the country would have turned upside down to find out what was going on and stop it,” he says.

He stops talking, and his silence is a form of shrug, neither of frustration nor acquiescence, but of utter bafflement that for so long almost no one outside the Downtown Eastside seemed to care. When I note this is, after all, the neighbourhood where Robert Pickton chose up to 49 victims that he later fed to pigs, Ronnie managed what could charitably be called an ironic smile.

Remarkably, nothing in his posture, face or voice hints at cynicism. Every working day he steps into his “office” aware that one or more of those he considers his neighbours will have overdosed or, if the prevailing winds aren’t too awful that morning, merely been hauled back to jail. He finds himself caught between forces that would crush other souls: a health care system full of dedicated people whose hands are bound when it comes to making necessary change, and a democratic ethos which wants all those scabby addicts to just straighten out and get their lives in order. Yet he and (he is quick to point this out) those he works with simply carry on.

The key to carrying on, he says, came from the realization that success in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside belongs in an almost different lexicon from the word that’s used outside the neighbourhood. Success here, he says, means helping an overdose victim take a first breath back to consciousness. It means getting water into a dehydrated addict high for days on end. It means helping someone in the midst of mania — drug-induced or otherwise — find a place to manage a few hours of frantically needed sleep. Someone, say, wrapped mummy-like in a dragonfly blue blanket.

“I’m not saying there’s no need to be moved into a system that can provide longer term help. But first you have to breathe, get water into your body, be able to sleep.”

I tell him Mother Teresa faced the same conundrum. She was forever being told her work among the poorest of the poor should be left to a properly perfected system of care. Her response was to agree wholeheartedly, with the caveat that until such a system came into being, she would keep doing what she was doing for the poor.

Ronnie seems to like that. He nods, and in the waver of his apostolic succession beard, it strikes me there’s a reminder for all of us up at the “Christian end” of whatever it is we do. Critically important as systems and plans are, the Gospel is not a system and Christ is not a plan. Together, though, they are the key to carrying us through all of our poverty, all of our suffering.

I recently misnamed a bilingual retreat being organized in Montreal by artist Alisha Ruiss. It is CREATED: An Artists’ Retreat (in French CRÉÉS: Une retraite pour les artistes.) 

(Stockland is publisher of and a senior fellow with Cardus.)

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