On November 7th, Choices for Youth (CFY) and a coalition of non-profit organizations, alongside Newfoundland and Labrador Health Services (NLHS), co-hosted a provincial Harm Reduction Summit. The event, held at the Health Innovation Acceleration Centre, brought together over 120 in-person attendees and over 80 virtual participants for a day of learning, sharing, and brainstorming about harm-reduction policies and practices and how to improve the existing healthcare system to produce better outcomes for vulnerable individuals.
Harm reduction is a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use. Harm reduction is also a movement for social justice built on a belief in, and respect for, the rights of people who use drugs. Harm reduction practices and principles aim to reduce the negative consequences of certain behaviours or substance use. These practices meet users where they are, prioritizing health and safety rather than a punitive approach or enforcing total abstinence. Examples of harm reduction practices include needle exchange programs and providing education on safer drug use practices. Harm reduction principles include non-judgmental and compassionate approaches, individual autonomy and agency, and a focus on minimizing the harms of risky behaviours rather than moralizing or stigmatizing them. (Source: https://harmreduction.org/about-us/principles-of-harm-reduction/)
The Harm Reduction Summit began with greetings from the Honourable Tom Osbourne, Minister of Health and Community Services and opening remarks from various representatives of the coalition and NLHS, including Sheldon Pollett, Executive Director of CFY, Angela Crockwell, Executive Director of Thrive, Laura Winters, CEO, Stella’s Circle, Jennifer Tipple, Director of Strategy at End Homelessness St. John’s, Charlie Murphy, Executive Director of Quadrangle NL, Jeff Bourne, Executive Director of C/O U-Turn Drop-IN-Centre, and Lisa Faye, Executive Director of St. John’s Status of Women Council.
CFY’s Senior Director of Strategy, Fund Development, and External Relations Jen Crowe then introduced the first session of the day. Titled “Radical Acceptance, Harm Reduction, and Pathways to Wellness,” the session first featured a presentation from Jane Henderson, Provincial Harm Reduction Consultant with NLHS, and Courtney Davis, Community Development Coordinator with Thrive. Following their informative presentation Jane and Courtney joined a panel discussion that included Travis Mitchell from the Rural Initiative Outreach Team (RIOT) Program with the AIDS Committee of NL, and Jeff Bourne. The panel answered a variety of questions from both in-person attendees as well as virtual participants and touched on the need for safe injection sites, rural versus urban challenges, and the importance of listening to those with lived experience.
The next session dove into the research and advocacy efforts around access to Naloxone and featured Dr. Francoise Guigne, Family Physician and Assistant Professor at MUN’s Faculty of Medicine. Dr. Guigne regularly provides medical services to vulnerable youth at CFY’s Outreach and Youth Engagement (OYE) Centre and has seen firsthand the impact that harm-reduction practices, like the availability of Naloxone kits and training, have on the lives of young people. Naloxone is a medication that rapidly reverses opioid overdose and has been proven to save lives when made available to drug users. Dr. Guigne is leading the charge in petitioning the provincial government to provide publicly funded Naloxone kits and training at pharmacies in NL.
The Summit’s next session included an informative presentation from Zoe Dodd, Community Scholar from MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions, Unity Health and Co-Founder of Toronto Overdose Prevention Society, that delved into the history of drug laws and treatment practices. A panel discussion followed this session and focused on imagining the treatment system that we need featuring Zoe, Dr. Guigne, and Courtney Davis alongside Jocelyn Dunn, Peer Support Supervisor with Lifewise, and Dr. Anne Drover, Division Chief of Newborn Care at the Janeway and Associate Professor at Memorial University’s Faculty of Medicine. The panellists agreed that Naloxone is a game-changer that is proven to reduce overdose deaths and that the government must introduce policies that de-stigmatize addiction and allow drug users easy access to a safe supply.
The Harm Reduction Summit culminated with a facilitated dialogue that invited attendees, in small groups, to discuss and brainstorm recommendations for what they wanted to see through effective systems of harm reduction across government, health systems, and community, and how we can actually build out that system. Following the initial discussion, attendees shared their thoughts and ideas with other groups. This session concluded with each group having the opportunity to share their best ideas and recommendations with the room.
One key takeaway from the facilitated dialogue was the importance of accessibility and the need to examine accessibility from all angles, including accessibility of language, accessibility of communication formats, accessibility of system structure, and accessibility of services for rural and marginalized communities.
The Harm Reduction Summit represented an incredible coming together of community-based organizations, allies, and strategic partners all united in the belief that the existing healthcare and addicting treatment systems can, and should, be improved through the implementation of harm reduction policies and principles. The discussions held throughout the day generated many great insights and recommendations that will help in the development of a policy paper that will be submitted to the provincial government, with the ultimate goal of affecting real change in our existing systems of treatment.
CFY would like to extend our heartfelt thanks to all the organizers, speakers, presenters, panellists, and attendees who helped make this event happen. Special thanks to the event sponsors – NLHS and End Homelessness St. John’s – for their contributions.
Written by Chris Morris