Chadd Cawson is among those who can put a name and a face to one of the countless thousands of people lost due to the toxic drug crisis. It’s his sister Jeni Leigh.
Cawson, a reporter at the Cowichan Valley Citizen who grew up in Winnipeg, is new to the area and has organized an awareness walk to not only honour and remember his sister, but for the other families similarly impacted and as a means of bringing the community together in support. The walk will take place in Crofton on International Overdose Awareness Day next Thursday, Aug. 31 from 7-8:30 p.m., utilizing the park by the ferry terminal and the Crofton Sea Walk.
“I’m hoping people will come out,” said Cawson. “It was last-minute for me to decide to do it here over the last two weeks. I was originally going to head back to Winnipeg but thought it was important to do something in North Cowichan.
“I think it is imperative for people to unite together on this day and remember our lost loved ones, as this rising worldwide crisis affects us all. It is crucial that we end the stigma around overdose deaths and start those hard conversations and let those that are grieving their lost loved ones know that they are not alone. We need to continue to remember and honour them.”
The program will begin by the Crofton Welcomes You sign in the park with a performance by the Tzinquaw Dancers and contemporary music on the piano by David Chung from 7-8 p.m.
“At eight o’clock, we’ll walk to the end of the sea walk and loop back around,” said Cawson.
People are asked to wear purple, the designated colour for the cause. Cawson hopes to have T-shirts available for future walks, but will distribute purple ribbons and purple glowsticks to light up the procession at dusk.
Donations will be accepted at the site for the Hope Healing Farm on Drinkwater Road in Duncan.
The allure of the ocean and the scenic beauty of the sea walk drew Cawson to hold the event there. He lives in Duncan, but drives to Crofton at least once a week because he loves being near the water, much like his sister did.
“The water’s always been very important to me,” said Cawson. “Me and my sister were both water signs. We both found water a healing place.
“The sea walk especially spoke to me. I love the memorial totem at the beginning of it and I am looking at trying to get the only bench that currently does not have a plaque on it dedicated not only to my sister, but all that have lost loved ones to this epidemic.”
Cawson’s nephew and niece’s dad lived on Salt Spring Island for a brief time so they passed through the area a few times, another of the little reasons why Crofton had appeal.
Cawson lost his sister to the toxic drug crisis in 2017. She was 37.
Jeni was living in Fort Lauderdale at the time and her two children still live there with their grandparents on their father’s side. Cawson and his sister both spent a considerable part of their lives in Winnipeg.
In 2018, Cawson started Manitoba’s first overdose awareness walk in honour of his sister whom he also called his best friend. He dubbed the event ‘Drop The Needle, Pick Up The Pace’.
“I did it as a healing avenue for myself,” Cawson said. “It affects people differently. I ended up attracting a community of people impacted by this.
“It brings people together. It’s only now with the tainted drugs out there it’s stealing lives. Not everyone has a strong support system. When life gets hard, they might turn to other things to cope.”
There were difficult times for Cawson and Jeni growing up. “It was me and her against the world at an early age,” he noted.
In Jeni’s case, she met a man who led her down a dark path in later years.
“Everybody loved her,” said Cawson. “She lit up a room just by entering it. I was very proud of her as a big brother.”
The first year of the walk in Winnipeg, which has a huge meth crisis according to Cawson, was very emotional and united strangers through tragedy. It started at the Forks in Winnipeg where the rivers meet and had a DJ and the Winnipeg sign lit purple.
The ‘Drop The Needle, Pick Up The Pace’ label applied for two years and then Cawson moved to Thailand to teach English in 2019 before rebranding it as ‘A Walk For J’ for a virtual event in 2020 due to COVID.
While living in Victoria in 2021, Cawson organized another awareness walk there. The Canada sign in Victoria was also lit purple in an effort to signify shining a light on overdose awareness and how the epidemic affects everyone.
“Last August 31, I flew back to Winnipeg from Invermere when I was working for the Pioneer,” he indicated, as he resumed the walk in his hometown. “It was originally my intent to go back to Winnipeg again this year, but with it just being not the most positive place for me anymore, I want to try to build connections and community now that I am living in the valley.”
The event has been near the water every year since inception in 2018 and now Crofton’s the home base going forward for ‘A Walk For J at Osborne Bay’, with Cawson intending to build on it next year.
“It’s nice I’m bringing it to different places,” he said.
Cawson added it’s crucial for our government to find better solutions for this rising epidemic, as every life taken too soon to the toxic drug crisis is someone’s special someone.
“It is important to advocate for safe supply and sites as they save lives. The sad reality is rehabilitation programs are not accessible for everyone because they are so expensive or have too long of wait times and the people that need help the most fall through the cracks.
“The toxic drug crisis and overdose epidemic does not discriminate, it does not know race, culture, age, gender or class. It affects us all. It is important that we end the stigma surrounding this and not be ashamed of those we lost or those that are currently struggling with addiction issues. It could happen to anyone, and it does. Spreading awareness, and being the best versions of ourselves is how we honour the fallen.
“I hope people who have lost a loved one to this growing epidemic like me find healing and know they are not alone. Spreading awareness starts conversations and the more we talk about it and end the preconceived stigmas around it, the more we can affect change and save lives. This International Overdose Awareness Day, let it be a day to remember, and a day to act.”