CATalyst Preview: Quesnel Community Action Team

“Ensuring CAT partners use the “nothing about us, without us” philosophy to guide engagement creates an equitable landscape rather than an equal landscape, which helps to potentially form trusting relationships.” – Charlene Burmeister, Provincial Peer Coordinator

The overdose crisis continues to be an area for urgent collective action across British Columbia. While there is much great work underway in community, the ability to share and mobilize knowledge is limited by access to resources, capacity and geographic distance between individuals and organizations.

Community Action Teams (CATs) across BC have stated their need for knowledge exchange so that they may learn from other communities about innovative or promising ways to respond to the overdose crisis. In response CAI is facilitating a knowledge sharing project titled “CATalyst”. CATalyst is led by a multi-sectoral and inclusive advisory committee, with the goals of helping communities connect to good practices, ideas, and people; and to create stronger connections for ongoing knowledge sharing.

CAI staff and project partners will document community-based interventions in a resource guide for other organizations wishing to implement or to adapt similar services. The CATalyst guide will cover a range of approaches, population groups, and local contexts, and themes will be determined collaboratively with people who have lived or living experience of substance use.

The knowledge product created will be one step in a process of building up more documentation of diverse community-based models of overdose prevention and response.

As CAI continues to work on the CATalyst project, we are pleased to offer a preview of our interview, with Charlene Burmeister and Louise Wannop of the Quesnel Community Action Team below.

Quesnel Community Action Team – Peer-driven, peer-led

Charlene Burmeister and Louise Wannop of the Quesnel Community Action Team (CAT) joined Community Action Initiative to discuss and share the learnings that have emerged from the Quesnel CAT’s operations since its forming in 2018.

The Quesnel Community Action Team membership consists of representatives in the Northern Health region from various Indigenous, health, social service organizations and peers. Charlene Burmeister is the Provincial Peer Coordinator for the Compassion, Inclusion, Engagement (CIE) Partnership under the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC). Louise Wannop works as a Peer Advisor with the Coalition of Substance Users of the North (CSUN)

In what ways are people with lived and living experience of substance use involved in your Community Action Team (CAT)?

Charlene Burmeister (CB): In the northern region, peer engagement is a rather new concept. I have been doing peer engagement and empowerment in my community for 10 years, and just in the last six months I’ve seen a shift in the health authority more meaningfully embracing the idea that people with lived and living experience of substance use are integral partners in the design, delivery and development of services that we may access.

The Quesnel CAT is peer-driven and peer-led and we work closely with peer-run agencies such as The Coalition of Substance Users of the North (CSUN). CSUN’s office is exclusively run by people with lived and living experience and facilitates development programs, services and resources for community members and represents an alliance of people responding to the overdose crisis. The office has seen tremendous success running after hours and on weekends.

Louise Wannop (LW): I am a peer on the CAT, and I do a lot of work in the community. I am an outreach worker, I connect with people in the community and take them to the OAT clinic, get people safe supply, deliver medications. As a group, we identified the need for community outreach. The Northern Peer Connection Van is a result of the CAT bringing together various organizations focused on providing primary care referrals, counselling, harm reduction, winter gear etc. What is unique is that we have peer as well as a service provider in the van, lowering barriers to accessing proper health care without stigma.

CB: The CAT has created a safe, equitable place for peer engagement which is not always upheld in our conservative community. It’s crucial to note that at the CAT table we have community members involved with organizations who already understood the importance of peer engagement and that’s why we are successful. CATs need to be upholding “nothing about us, without us” as their guiding principles to empower peers as key partners.

Can you tell us about access to Opioid Agonist Treatment (OAT) and access to safer supply in Quesnel?

CB: Geographically, in Quesnel, we have a prescribing physician from the Interior because Northern Health has trouble finding physicians willing to prescribe safe supply.

LW: We support people who want to be on the OAT program. We complete the intake forms and get them into the program. The intake forms are so time intensive, but I have about 15 people on the OAT program. The Peer Connections Van really helps a lot to connect with people, pick people up and bring them to the clinic.

Tell us about existing stigma in Quesnel?

CB: We are a northern conservative area. There is a lot of lateral violence amongst people who use substances. There’s privileged substance use, that creates lateral violence. There are people who use drugs that are comfortably housed, who say “we need to deal with the people using drugs in our community” – that is hugely problematic. The hierarchy of substance use amongst people who use drugs creates stigmatizing landscapes amongst drug users with less privilege. When substance users create those hierarchies, it almost impossible to have productive community dialogue.

What is one piece of advice you might have for a new Community Action Team?

CB: You need to include both service providers who understand best practices as their guiding principles for peer engagement and peers who are upheld as experts in their own lives. And there needs to be mentorship between service providers and peers to be able to share and understand each other’s successes and failures. Working together to better understand each other’s experiences is so important with service providers but we can’t force these relationships. Ensuring CAT partners use the “nothing about us, without us” philosophy to guide engagement creates an equitable landscape rather than an equal landscape, which helps to potentially form trusting relationships.

LW: You need to include peers – you need to hear the voice of peers. A CAT team will not be successful without getting knowledge from the people you are trying to reach. You can have all the service providers in the world, but they do not know firsthand what it is like to use substances. If you don’t know what that feels like personally, you really need those people onboard with you. Very importantly, there needs to be trauma-informed training for service providers, and peers need training to be able to sit at those tables with courage and the ability to engage in dialogue.