British Columbia

Indigenous harm reduction workers recognized by new Vancouver photo exhibit

A new photo exhibition recognizes the Indigenous people who have been working to prevent deaths in the Downtown Eastside during the province's opioid epidemic.

Portraits mark six years of work for Vancouver's Overdose Prevention Society

Don Durban is shown in a photo of a portrait by Rafal Gerszak, which is part of an exhibition in Vancouver of Indigenous workers with the Overdose Prevention Society. (Janella Hamilton/CBC)

Don Durban, a worker with Vancouver's Overdose Prevention Society (OPS), stands in front of a portrait of himself at the City Centre Motel and expresses surprise as he sees himself through someone else's lens. 

"I didn't know I looked so good," Durban said as he viewed several portraits of himself, which show him working at the sites the society runs.

The portraits of Durban are part of an exhibition that highlights the Indigenous people who have been working to prevent deaths in the Downtown Eastside during the province's opioid epidemic.

The paid workers provide safe spaces for people to use illicit drugs and be monitored while they do so, to help prevent overdoses and to help users recover in the event of an overdose. 

Norma Vaillancourt, a supervisor with the Overdose Prevention Society in Vancouver, stands beside portraits of her that are part of an exhibition marking her volunteerism with the organization. (Janella Hamilton/CBC)

Durban said he barely recognized himself as he looked at the pictures and reflected on years of his own alcohol abuse.

"Alcohol is a good spot remover," he said. "It also removes lives, and jobs and a whole bunch of stuff. It stunted who I was."

He credits the OPS with saving his life and turning him onto a path of helping others.

"OPS is like a little family, caring and loving. And I needed that," he said. 

It's been nearly six years since B.C. declared a public health emergency because of drug-related deaths. 

Statistics released by the B.C. Coroners Service in February confirmed that 2,224 lives were lost in 2021, making it the deadliest year on record.

Sarah Blyth, the society's executive director, said the organization's success in supporting vulnerable people comes from workers like Durban.

"They've been on the frontlines for six years now," she said. "They're the most caring, compassionate people I've ever known. So it's really great to recognize them for the work that they do."

The portraits were taken by Rafal Gerszak, who is part of the First Nations leadership team with OPS.

Blyth said some of the people photographed have saved hundreds of lives in the past year alone. 

Some of the portraits featuring Indigenous workers with Vancouver's Overdose Prevention Society at an exhibition at the City Centre Motel. (Janella Hamilton/CBC)

Portraits of Norma Vaillancourt, an alcoholic and recovering heroin addict, show her embracing another person and working at the harm reduction sites.

She is a supervisor with OPS and said having Indigenous people lead the work provides strength to others who are struggling.

"This project is special because we need to let the Aboriginal people know that we still have our addictions and what we're doing for OPS, saving lives everyday ... we need to have a voice out there."

'See me as a proud Aboriginal woman'

Vaillancourt hopes when people see her photos they ask questions and learn more about the struggles she's faced with her own addictions and how far she's come.

"I hope my photo tells them that this woman looks strong," she said. "I can manage my life still and still work hard ... and the people I think see me as a proud Aboriginal woman."

With files from Janella Hamilton