Pubdate: Sat, 25 Feb 2017
Source: Toronto Star (CN ON)
Copyright: 2017 The Toronto Star
Author: Ellen Brait
Page: A8


A celebration of Balian's life to be held Saturday afternoon

Raffi Balian, a fierce advocate for harm reduction and the rights of
drug users, died on Feb.16 in Vancouver, according to the B.C.
Coroners Service. He was 60 years old.

Balian was attending a national meeting about supervised drug
consumption services at the time. He died from an "accidental
overdose," according to a release from the South Riverdale Community
Health Centre, but the B.C. Coroners Service said a definite cause of
death has not yet been determined.

Friends say he is survived by two sons.

Balian's personal life was interwoven with "his commitment to
substance users and changing policy and creating a better world,"
according to Julia Barnett, a friend and colleague.

"Raffi was in the trenches of trying to build compassion for those who
used while at the same time demanding harm reduction service supports
and strategies to basically save the lives of users," she said.

Balian, who was a teacher, was first introduced to drugs when he
noticed his students in Kingston were injecting steroids, he told the
Star during an interview last month. He contacted a friend at the Keep
Six! Needle Exchange Program to obtain clean needles and began helping
out with the program.

When a job opened up, he took it. After about six months, Balian
became co-ordinator of the program.

Despite his commitment to helping drug users, Balian had his own
demons and began using drugs himself. He used "almost every drug there
is" for the last 23 years of his life, with opioids as his "drug of
choice," Balian said. As a result, he lost touch with family members
and watched his marriage disintegrate.

"There was a personal price to pay but on the other hand I became
intimately aware of the issues around drug use and the challenges
people faced," Balian told the Star in an interview last month.

While in Kingston, Barnett said he also helped with the development of
the provincial strategy for PASAN, a community-based organization
"providing HIV/AIDS and HCV prevention, education and support services
to prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families," according to their

He moved to Toronto in the mid 90s, according to Walter Cavalieri,
Balian's friend and a member of the Canadian Harm Reduction Network.
Balian worked on a number of initiatives, with different agencies
before being hired by the South Riverdale Community Health Centre in
1998. He was the first staff member hired for the COUNTERfit Harm
Reduction program, a project offering outreach and education services
to drug users in the Riverdale area. He was later named the program's

"There was a moral richness to his work without being moralistic,"
Cavalieri said. "He was not a preachy man but so much of what he did
seemed to be grounded in a sense of justice and the need for justice."

Using his intimate knowledge of drug use and the challenges users
face, Balian said he was able to "develop a program that responded to
these issues." The release on Balian's death credited him with
creating a program that was "locally and internationally recognized"
and "acclaimed by researchers, academics, colleagues and the vast
community of people who use drugs."

Balian was well-respected and trusted in the community, Cavalieri
said, because he "viewed every person who walked into COUNTERfit to
pick up needles or supplies as a potential staff member."

"All of them were seen as being capable, accomplished, and despite
their use of drugs, they were potential staff members," Cavalieri
said. "That gave him a lot of respect. I think the things that people
who are severely marginalized or stigmatized want most are respect and
non-judgmental relationships. Certainly COUNTERfit exemplified that."

Balian even wrote a book with Cheryl White about strategies for 
recruiting, supervising, and retaining staff members who use drugs, as 
well as how to ensure both employees who use drugs and those who don't, 
are treated fairly. The book, titled Harm Reduction at Work: A guide for 
organizations employing people who use drugs, was part of the Harm 
Reduction Field Guide Series produced by the Open Society Public Health 

Cavalieri said the book was "translated into numerous languages" and
"used in many countries, not just North America."

Recently, Balian fought tirelessly for supervised injection sites,
where users can inject illegal drugs under medical supervision. He
credited his job and safe places to inject with turning his own life

Because of these things he said he was able to maintain a steady
income, have money in the bank, keep a credit card for the past three
or four years, and repair severed relationships with relatives. He
also cut down his drug use from daily to once every month or so.

In January, the province approved the funding of three injection sites
in Toronto, with one set to open at the South Riverdale Community
Health Centre.

"I have never known anyone whose death has moved me so profoundly
because he was so key to the development of what harm reduction is in
Canada and in the world," Cavalieri said.

A celebration of Balian's life will be held on Saturday afternoon from
2 to 4 p.m. at the 519 Church Street Community Centre.
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