SPARK Nanaimo: Looking at the Toxic Drug Crisis through a Different Lens

An inaugural event recently led by Island Health’s Innovation Lab has set the stage for future collaborations that will focus on creative approaches to big-picture problems.

In November 2023, the first instalment of the SPARK program was held in Nanaimo. The program aims to bring together a diverse set of participants to identify health-care challenges and develop potential solutions. SPARK Nanaimo addressed one of the most tragic and vexing issues facing Nanaimo and the province as a whole – the toxic drug crisis.

As recent figures indicate, more than 2,500 lives were lost last year in B.C. due to toxic, unregulated drugs – the highest such tally yet. Within the Island Health region, Nanaimo has been particularly hard hit in terms of death rates due to illicit drug toxicity and other metrics.

Against this backdrop, SPARK Nanaimo was held at Vancouver Island University on Nov. 23-24. More than 30 participants – peers, members of community and service organizations, students, researchers, a municipal councillor and Island Health employees – gathered to share experiences, learn from each other and collaborate on innovative ideas to support those impacted by the toxic drug supply, homelessness and poverty.

The impetus for this event was a letter penned last year by Graham Payette, Island Health’s executive director of innovation and architecture. The document, an impassioned call to action, was shared with a range of Island Health staff and leaders whose work focuses on the toxic drug crisis. Essentially, it recommended an all-hands-on-deck outlook combined with innovative thinking, similar to the approach used to meet the COVID-19 challenge.

“SPARK was the Innovation Lab’s immediate response to the call to action,” says Matthew Miller, director of brand, digital engagement and innovation, and a co-founder of the Innovation Lab.

The aim behind the SPARK series, he explains, is location, activation and inclusion. “Rather than tackling problems in the Innovation Lab or at Code Hack, we’re bringing the Lab’s design-thinking process into communities to explore opportunities with the people who are affected by, and who can most benefit from, potential solutions.” It’s a collaborative approach, which means communities and partners are jointly responsible for moving ideas forward.

Day one of SPARK Nanaimo focused largely on discussions and framing the issue, and featured input from people with expertise in different areas, including those with lived experience. Carlin Dunsmoor-Farley, Island Health’s manager of strategic initiatives for the toxic drug crisis, opened the proceedings. “I am really optimistic,” she said. “We’ve got an opportunity to look at things through a bit of a different lens.”

Various presentations were given, peers and others shared their experiences, dialogue was encouraged and connections were made. Near the end of the first day, the focus shifted and the collaborative work began. Participants gathered in smaller groups to brainstorm and start generating innovative ideas to address the complexities of the crisis.


Pictured: A brainstorming session underway at SPARK Nanaimo

This work also took up much of day two – feedback was given and ideas were refined, culminating in presentations given by the respective groups on their projects. These included: 

  • Bridge of Influence, which focused on Island Health staff working with peer consulting firms in Nanaimo; 
  • A Peers United Network of Knowledge (PUNK) to provide a safe and accessible drug supply, and increase access to, and capacity for, resources; and  
  • Mobile Peer Services, which involved using a retrofitted bus to provide hygiene services for people who use substances, along with resources to support people and communities during cold weather.

For a first-of-its-kind event, SPARK Nanaimo garnered enthusiasm, inspiration and appreciation.

“When we all get together and collaborate, really magical things happen,” says Lenae Silva, a peer and co-founder of the Open Heart Collaborative. “There were bright ideas that have reignited a lot of passion. I’ve seen some of the peers out and about, doing their own outreach again. Events like these are vital for solving the crisis.”

“I’m pretty shy about group work so I was nervous about this,” adds Heather McDonald, harm reduction and outreach administrator for Nightkeepers, an after-hours peer outreach service in Nanaimo. “But spending the afternoon to bring practical suggestions to the table, I think that’s a really amazing idea.”

Hilary Eastmure, a councillor for the City of Nanaimo, highlighted the conversations and ideas that came out of the focus groups – “some tangible ideas that would be relatively easy to enact, and relatively affordable compared to how much we’re spending on other things,” she says. “Now I’m really interested in taking the ideas and solutions that I heard here today, and actually getting them out into the community and putting them to work.”

“It was a great idea to connect with other organizations doing important work in the community,” says Carolyn Holmes, executive director of the Nanaimo Art Gallery. “I left having had ideas ‘sparked’ and thinking about how my organization can help address some of the challenges facing our community.”

The event also helped foster a sense of hope in the midst of a crisis that’s been deemed a public health emergency for nearly eight years. “I find it motivating,” says Robyn Lee, a systems navigator with AVI Health Centre in Nanaimo. “I came in with some rage and frustration at the situation – and now I feel a little more optimistic after going through the process. It’s been helpful.”

“I think we are all very passionate about the work we do and can get caught up in the day to day. Sometimes the barriers we face are overwhelming and it’s possible to lose hope,” adds Kathryn Kurtz, a social work clinician at Island Health who’s part of the substance use services outreach team in Nanaimo. “Stepping outside of that, refocusing ourselves and coming together is really effective – we’re able to move past some of the barriers that we face each day.”

A report on SPARK Nanaimo is being prepared to share with participants, partners, and Island Health staff and leaders for their review and thoughts on next steps. Meanwhile, Miller plans to position the SPARK concept as one of the Innovation Lab’s service offerings moving forward. He’s keen to hold future events other locations that continue to grapple with the “bigger, wicked problems” – such as the toxic drug crisis, climate change, food security and more.

“It’s intended to be portable,” he says. “We can take this model to any hospital, any system, any university, any city, any village, and replicate the success of SPARK Nanaimo.”

Innovation is a key priority for Island Health, and involves translating the input and ingenuity of our staff, physicians, partners and patients into new ideas and solutions that address health-care challenges and improve people’s lives. Examples of innovation in action include Code Hack, sensor trials at Island Health washrooms that monitor for toxic drug poisonings, enhanced accessibility features for the future Cowichan District Hospital and the Cognitive Health Initiative, a visionary project focused on research and care for patients living with cognitive health issues.