For many candidates vying for seats in Vancouver’s civic election this Saturday, housing affordability is the city’s number one issue.
A very different challenge has taken the back seat at panels and debates, one that is a matter of life and death: the opioid overdose crisis. There were over 1,400 overdose deaths in B.C. last year.
One council candidate, well known for her lifesaving work at the centre of this crisis, has been sounding the alarm. “I’m always shocked about how not shocked everybody is,” said Sarah Blyth.
Blyth first saw an increasing number of overdoses at the time she was working at a Portland Hotel Society assisted-living facility.
In 2016, she helped start the Overdose Prevention Society and together they pitched a tent behind the Downtown Eastside Street Market to serve as a supervised-injection site in the low-income neighbourhood. The site was illegal, but neither the police nor the health authority would move to shut it down. That year, over 900 people would die from overdoses in B.C.
In its first year of operation, the group estimated it received 100,000 visits and prevented almost 300 overdoses. The illegal site would later receive support from the B.C. Ministry of Health.
Last year, the city’s Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services commended the group with awards, saying that for every naloxone injection that first responders deliver in the city, volunteers in the community inject 100 more.
Earlier this year, Blyth, 46, announced that she was running for city council.
It’s a return to politics for Blyth, who served two terms as a park board commissioner with the Vision Vancouver party. That first foray into politics was also driven by advocacy. Blyth had started the Vancouver Skateboard Coalition and called for more skateboard parks in the city. The experience grew her interest in civic politics.
Blyth is reentering politics as an independent candidate and has said that the new campaign finance rules have made that feasible this election.
We talked to Blyth about the election, the opioid crisis and what it’s like fighting for an issue as an advocate and a politician. (It has been condensed and edited for brevity.)
The Tyee: You left Vancouver’s park board in 2014. What was it like for you to take a break from politics, become a community advocate again and deal with politicians?
Sarah Blyth: Because I was a politician, I understood what was needed to bring to politicians to make things work. It’s hard for politicians to figure out what needs to be done if someone just says, “I don’t like this! You need to do something about it!” You need to go to them and say, “I have a solution and it looks like this.”
I’m good at creating a case for something, like with the overdose prevention site: we were saving lives. Someone needs to be willing to create a case for something, be tough, and present it so that no one can say no to it because it’s the right thing to do.
Why did you decide to jump back into politics and run for city council?
I’ve been working on the frontlines [in the Downtown Eastside] talking to firefighters, ambulance workers — everyone down there. Managing different projects, I’ve come to realize what needs to be done, what isn’t being done properly and where money needs to be spent to help people.
I don’t think anyone else running in this election has the frontline knowledge of what the issues are and how to deal with them. So I think it would make a really big impact at city hall if I’m able to speak to them when they come up, whether that’s related to the school board or even to do with parks and rec, like needles in parks.
We need people who are tough. We need people who are willing to stand up to the federal government and call for a national health crisis. If I won, I’ll be in a good position to do that as a city councillor. I’d be in a position to continue to fight, bring awareness and show people what needs to be done next.
What are your thoughts on how the opioid crisis has been talked about this election?
It’s been addressed, but I don’t think it’s been pushed as the crisis that it really is. People are dying more than ever. I’m always shocked about how not shocked everybody is.
I’m shocked because I have to talk to parents of people who died. Throughout my campaign, people have been telling me stories about people they know who’ve died.
Hearing all of these stories and understanding the depth of the crisis really isn’t a political thing. I’ve invited candidates who’ve come to me to see what we do and learn as much as they can. If I don’t get elected, I’d hope to see who does get elected to be willing to work with us and help us.
What kind of mental shift do you think Vancouverites need in order to understand and act on this crisis?
There’s stigma: nobody wants anything to do with [drug users], and that’s not right and that’s not going to help anybody. The more someone feels like they’re marginalized and not part of society, the less likely they’re going to want to be part of society. We need to do a lot more to help our most vulnerable people, who are buying drugs from people who put rat poison and other things that can kill into drugs.
The anger and outrage isn’t as loud as it should be. To be honest, it’s hard to keep outrage at a high level for the frontline folks. Over the past two years, it’s been really hard. I’ve been working seven days a week and seeing God knows how many people dying. It’s truly unbelievable and shocking. If I was a councillor, I’m going to shock people into doing something to help. People have to wake up to what’s happening.
There are a lot of things we can do. Prevention for young people who aren’t given support and educated. There are a lot of them slipping through the cracks, especially if they have mental health, disabilities, autism or [fetal alcohol spectrum disorders] and they end up using drugs.
For our users, decriminalization, safe access to drugs (and cannabis), better healthcare, better housing, less policing.
If you have a bathtub, if you have a home, if you have a job — all the things everybody else has — the easier it is to get off drugs and have a decent life.