On a sunny July afternoon at a Costco in Etobicoke, Adam Fraser, a client-support worker at Breakaway Addiction Services, is delivering instructions through a cloth mask to Leah Fay, Peter Dreimanis, and Eamon McGrath. Fraser reads from a typed-up grocery list on a folded piece of paper.
“How many boxes of Rice Krispies?” Fay asks. Fraser consults his list: “Four.”
This is a scene that unfolds each week as Fay and Dreimanis — members of the Toronto band July Talk — along with Fraser and a recruited musician helper (singer-songwriter Matt Mays lent a hand the week before), shop for groceries that will go to community members who access Breakaway’s food programs. Fraser says that they’re doing shops for between 80 and 100 people every week.
“That includes clients who are housed and clients who are living rough, who are at shelters,” he says. “A lot of our programming is fairly malleable, but everything comes from a place of harm reduction.”
The grocery shops are part of a program, led by July Talk, called CARE-A-Van, which sees Toronto-area bands and artists lend their vans to help with the purchase and delivery of supplies and groceries for Breakaway’s clients. The added resources are especially useful at a time when Breakaway’s community is being affected by compounding health crises. While COVID-19 disproportionately harms low-income and migrant communities, Ontarians who use drugs — many of whom are also low-income and under-housed — are experiencing a spike in overdose deaths. The conditions mirror what’s happening British Columbia, where the province has seen record numbers of overdose deaths during the pandemic.
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“Aside from the overdose crisis, we also have COVID and a housing crisis,” says Fraser. “There’s so much comorbidity."
Fay, Dreimanis, McGrath, and Fraser plod through towering steel racks piled with pallets of dried goods and cooking supplies. Fay asks whether there are some clients who don’t have access to a kitchen. Specific considerations such as these inform the shop.
“Going with stuff that’s higher in fibre is really important, because opioids can cause a lot of constipation,” says Fraser. “Softer things are good because of how poor the dental-care system is in our province and in our country, and a lot of the folks don’t have as strong of teeth.”
The shopping expeditions are also informed by responses from clients — a dynamic that Fraser and Nicola Bangham, executive director of Breakaway, say is critical to the organization. “The overriding principle at Breakaway is meeting people where they’re at, going in and supporting folks to go where they want to go,” Bangham says. “There’s a lot of addiction treatment agencies where it’s prescribed: the goal is to get sober or to stop using. That can be a goal, but it would have to be set by the client.”
Fraser says that, when it comes to drug use, “There’s still that Reagan-era narrative that it’s a moral issue or a choice.” Drug use is abetted in some contexts and criminalized in others, he adds, giving the example of an injured worker who’s prescribed strong painkillers. Eventually, the prescription runs out, but the pain lingers. “What choice do you have? You lose your job, or you look elsewhere for pain medication.”
The roots of the CARE-A-Van campaign go back to 2016, when Dreimanis attended a protest for Overdose Awareness Day. Fraser invited Dreimanis to perform a few songs before a panel discussion, which was hosted at Ryerson University and included Fraser’s colleague Akia Munga. Their depth of knowledge and experience in harm reduction inspired Dreimanis. “To hear Akia talking about being a drug user and having no interest in changing that, it was really exciting,” he says.
When Fraser suffered a back injury earlier this year, Dreimanis volunteered to tag along on grocery trips and use July Talk’s van to ferry groceries back to Breakaway. Since then, friends from Toronto’s music scene have gotten behind the cause. The work has also seen support from allied bands: Toronto punk group PUP recently raised roughly $36,000 to split between Breakaway and another organization.
Fay says that, after months of isolated activism and donating, it’s a relief to be able to commit time and energy to mutual aid. “To help the community is as much to help the city that you live in as it is just, like, the sanity of feeling like you’re tangibly and physically a part of trying to ease some of what people are going through who aren’t so privileged,” says Fay, who then turns to Fraser: “Do we need apple sauce?”
Harm reduction is important to Dreimanis. “I started using drugs very young and always really enjoyed that aspect of my life as a way to escape,” he says. “I liked kind of losing control of my own mind and enjoying that.”
The music industry, he says, is predicated on paradoxical conditions: it celebrates casual drug use but condemns addiction and favours abstinence in response to regular drug use: “As a touring musician, you are constantly exposed to folks that are riding that line between being able to control their use and not control their use, and yet the consequences of them riding that line are little to none — if anything, it’s encouraged.”
Dreimanis sees Breakaway’s work — and that of other harm-reduction activists — as in line with calls for community-led governance. “At this time of talking about defunding the police and replacing those services with community solutions, it’s really exciting that that could actually go into the control of people that have been doing good work like this for decades,” he says.
Bangham, Fraser, and others involved with Breakaway worry that the food programs will be at risk when their start-up donation from Daily Bread runs out and that individual donations alone might not be enough to sustain the grocery trips. Even now, spending is done carefully. During the grocery shop, concessions need to be made to come in on budget. A flat of tuna cans is returned to its shelf after some hurried iPhone calculations. But Bangham says it’s critical to keep the program — and other supports, such as the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit, implemented during COVID-19 — funded.
“Let’s keep it going,” says Bangham. “These services help people to get back up off their knees.”