Kelly Rose Pflug-Back
Last Friday, June 26, over fifty Torontonians gathered for the city’s first Support. Don’t Punish. Global Day of Action. Over the past three years, the number of cities participating has nearly quadrupled, spreading from 41 cities in 2013, to 100 in 2014, and to 156 in 2015. Toronto was not the only Canadian city to take part this year, as Montreal and Ottawa also held actions to commemorate the day.
Toronto’s action was located in the courtyard of the South Riverdale Community Health Centre at the Drug Users’ Memorial – a statue which bears the names of East Toronto residents who have died as a result of prohibitionist drug policies. Attendees gathered in the courtyard to listen to speakers, socialize, and enjoy a delicious vegan feast prepared by Toronto’s Food Not Bombs chapter. Representatives from the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention, and Jac’s Voice delivered speeches covering a diverse array of topics relating to the harms of current drug policies. The range of speakers highlighted both personal and political perspectives on drugs, criminalization, health, human rights, and other social and economic issues which impact people who use drugs, their families and loved ones, and society in general. The long, hard, and often uphill battle against the criminalization and stigmatization of drugs is fought not only through political lobbying and public education, but also through our day to day choices to exercise love and compassion towards ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities, in a world which too often dehumanizes those who use illicit substances or otherwise do not fit into the status quo.
After the speeches, speakers and audience members assembled into a march and made way along Queen Street, carrying signs with slogans including “Health not Handcuffs” and “Harm Reduction Saves Lives.” The group chanted, handed out flyers about Support. Don’t Punish., and briefly chatted with interested passersbys.
People in attendance belonged to many different age groups, backgrounds, and levels of experience in activism and advocacy work. Some attendees were drug users, while others were family members or friends of people who use. A delegation of young people from the Native Youth Resource Centre attended, and youth in general were highly represented at the action. The event served as a way for advocates to forge new connections with other organizations and individuals. The action illustrated the power of how common goals can bring people together, and the importance of solidarity in the struggle for just and equitable drug policy.
While the Support. Don’t Punish. campaign is global in it’s scope, Toronto’s day of action provided a space to discuss and strategize on issues specifically relevant to Canada, Ontario, and Toronto, including high rates of opioid overdoses, naloxone access, and the recently passed Bill C-2, which creates numerous obstacles to opening and operating life-saving supervised consumption sites. Future Support. Don’t Punish. actions in Toronto could be a key component of mobilizing the region around drug policy issues and educating the general public about the harms caused by prohibitionist drug policies. We hope that next year’s day of action will be an even larger gathering, and that the number of Canadian cities participating will continue to expand.