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Vigils to be held Thursday on International Overdose Awareness Day

Nick Eagland, Postmedia Network

Leslie McBain whose son died following an opioid addiction talks to reporters at a news conference regarding the impact of opioid overdose on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa on Thursday, November 17, 2016. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand)

Leslie McBain whose son died following an opioid addiction talks to reporters at a news conference regarding the impact of opioid overdose on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa on Thursday, November 17, 2016. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand)

Drug-users and their loved ones will observe International Overdose Awareness Day at solemn events Thursday across B.C. as a fentanyl-related, public-health emergency shows little sign of slowing down.

In the first half of 2017, 780 people died of an illicit-drug overdose death in B.C., compared with 414 during the same period last year, when there were a total of 978 deaths in 2016, according to a B.C. Coroners Service report last month.

Meanwhile, first-responders are strained by a surge in overdose responses across the province.

Thursday, at noon, in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs (CAPUD) — along with Culture Saves Lives, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users and the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society — will host an event at 58 West Hastings St.

"We want to focus on the very crucial role that people who use drugs play in ending the overdose epidemic, and how our government needs to recognize that through the people who use drugs — and their empowerment — we will get close to ending this thing or reducing a whole lot of overdose deaths," said CAPUD president Jordan Westfall.

Westfall said he believes government is starting to pay attention to groups like his and their efforts to expand access to overdose prevention sites, though the government's work with drug-users is "not nearly enough" to have an impact, he added.

Ahead of the event, its organizers distributed four sections of a canvas heart to places in Vancouver where drug-users gather, so that they can sign it with the names of loved ones lost to drugs, Westfall said. The heart will be mailed to the federal government.

In Victoria, an event will be held at Centennial Square.

From 4:30-6 p.m. attendees can receive a free, overdose-reversing naloxone kit and learn how to use it. A rally will follow at 6 p.m., featuring live music and speakers, as well as a candlelight vigil at 7 p.m. to remember the thousands of people lost to overdoses in B.C.

Leslie McBain, founder of Moms Stop the Harm, which advocates for harm reduction and policy change around drugs, said her group was among a diverse committee of organizers, including AIDS Vancouver Island, the Mustard Seed Street Church and the Centre for Addictions Research of B.C.

McBain said it's important that any overdose-awareness initiative addresses the stigmas associated with addiction and how they impact drug-users and their loved ones.

A third event will be held at 5 p.m. on the north plaza of the Vancouver Art Gallery, according to a Facebook event page for the "International Overdose Awareness Day Vigil & Rally," hosted by Tabitha Montgomery.

neagland@postmedia.com