Five Questions with Breaking Barriers Project

New 5 Corners, downtown Chilliwack

The Breaking Barriers Project was implemented from June 2020 to March 2021 through a collaboration between the City of ChilliwackFraser Health and Chilliwack Healthier Community, and was funded through the Community Wellness and Harm Reduction Grants program.

This project was designed in response to growing concerns related to increasing social issues – including illicit substance use, mental health issues, and homelessness – and their impacts on downtown Chilliwack.

The primary aim of the project was to engage and consult stakeholders and conduct additional research around programmatic responses to the above-mentioned issues—particularly exploring employment opportunities for people with lived and living experience of illicit substance use or homelessness.

This month, we caught up with the Breaking Barriers team to discuss the project and what is coming next for Breaking Barriers. Read the Q&A below!

1. You engaged in a fulsome consultation with your community on how to bring about greater social inclusion, through employment programs for people with lived/living experience of substance use, mental health issues, and/or homelessness. Why was this consultation important to your team? What did you learn?

For our team, consultation requires a truly generative engagement with everyone impacted by the issues at hand. Our project particularly focused on the downtown core, as it has historically been a contested and sometimes controversial space in our community. We learned that despite the reality of negative experiences from all community members, quite a few people are highly invested in positive change. We also learned that, even with highly motivated stakeholders and innovative ideas, providing employment options without stable housing is an extremely difficult proposition. We remain hopeful that continued efforts and collaboration will widen the landscape of opportunity in our community.

2. A “Peer informed approach” has been at the heart of the project. Can you explain what a peer informed approach is, and why it is so important to Breaking Barriers?

Including people who will be impacted by decisions in the decision-making process simply makes sense. It’s a no brainer for us.

“Peer informed” vs “Peer led” indicates the reality that the we applied for the grant with specific objectives in mind that were relatively non-negotiable; namely, to conduct a consultation process and engage stakeholders in community dialogue. A peer-led process would have meant that the peer project leads would have set the agenda from the outset.

Breaking Barriers Participant Robert James Alexander Kelly, or Boomtown.


3. The business community was also engaged as part of your consultation. What was the value of including them at the table alongside PWLLE, health authority, and city staff?

The business community includes stakeholders with a vested interest downtown. Many of them live downtown as well as own and/or run their businesses. Decisions relative to the space impact their livelihood. We view them as vital partners. Some of the business owners we included in our project have experienced major transformation as a result of increased engagement around social issues downtown

4. Breaking Barriers was designed before the COVID-19 pandemic began. How did the project plan and implementation change due to COVID-19? What have been some of the challenges and successes?

It would be difficult to overestimate the impact of the pandemic on the original concept of this project. Much of the engagement was designed to happen over gatherings with food or in-person trips with stakeholders to inspiring and promising initiatives in other jurisdictions. None of these happened. To make a long story short, we used the extra money in two places: 1) We expanded the consultant’s research to include more best practice initiatives; 2) We contracted creatives to generate knowledge translation content. The latter led to an initiative highlighting the inspiring story of one particular downtown business owner and the promise of beauty and art to generate hope and healing. The ultimate product will involve an online photo journalism story and a collaborative mural downtown with professional artists and people with lived and living experience.

5. What’s next for Breaking Barriers?

We are gathering a table of interested parties to pilot or implement strategies that came up in the engagement process. We will also—per the original project design—partner with Chilliwack Healthier Communities to implement a meal-based dialogue program to enhance understanding and inclusion with all kinds of downtown stakeholders. We are just waiting for Covid-19 to finally loosen its grip so we can all breathe a sigh of relief and begin to freely re-engage each other in person!


Salina Derish, owner and operator of PicEco Refills in downtown Chilliwack. She has worked with the Housing Hub at Pacific Community Resources Society and other stakeholders to provide flexible employment opportunities.