Looking down at his phone, a small, subtle smile begins to creep across Brian Whelan’s face.
For just a moment, he is lost in memory.
Staring back at him is a grainy photo of his daughter standing next to his dear friend, Cammy LaFleur — both smiling brightly.
The photo is one of Brian’s most cherished reminders of his friend.
“She was a gem drop from heaven,” he says when asked about Cammy. “If it wasn’t for her I would be dead or doing some serious time in a penitentiary.”
It has been 18 years since Cammy passed away from cystic fibrosis (July 24, 2002), but both her name and legacy have carried on in the hearts and minds of those who knew her and of those who have since followed in her footsteps.
Cammy LaFleur is a name well known in certain circles, not just in the North Okanagan but across the country.
For those who still speak it, the name is most closely associated with compassion and caring for those who would be considered society’s most vulnerable and neglected citizens.
Cammy not only helped implement the concept of harm reduction to the community, but she was also one of the first people in the Okanagan to openly promote it as an effective means to control the spread of blood-borne pathogens like HIV and hepatitis C.
The harm reduction model Cammy helped introduce in the late ’90s paved the way for the harm reduction practices used to this day. Cammy’s work has literally saved thousands upon thousands of lives, including Brian’s.
“When I first met Cammy, I was on the ground in front of Savoy’s saw shop, probably dying of a heroin overdose,” he recalled. “She had left the clinic to drive home and she drove by me and saw my daughter standing there beside me and stopped. She saved my life.”
Brian has long been a person who uses substances, and back in the late 1990s, he recalls being in a dark place.
“She cared for me so much that she cried for me when she told me I had hepatitis C. At first, she said she was scared to tell me.” Brian laughs to himself at the memory.
That speaks to what was at the heart of Cammy LaFleur’s work and what continues in her name to this day.
“The clinic was the safest spot in the city for an addict,” explained Brian. “It was just open. Open to anything, everything. They would help you with whatever they could, to the best of their ability — each and every time. Especially Cammy.”
At the back of a little coffee shop in downtown Vernon sit Jan Shumay and Dean Francks. Jan and Dean worked with Cammy during the late ’90s right up until her passing in 2002.
The pair share a few laughs as they reminisce about their friend and colleague.
“She would never do anything she didn’t want to do. She’d always say, ‘don’t do what you don’t want to do, Jan. Life is short.’”
Jan was the executive director of North Okanagan Youth and Family Services (NOYFSS), Dean worked with at-risk youth; Cammy ran the outreach clinic.
“The whole team grew our outreach back then,” explained Dean, who has since taken over as the executive director of NOYFSS from Jan. “We were all really close. We worked well together.”
Harm reduction back in the ’90s was primarily condoms and needle exchange and was something that was not openly discussed in public.
Before Cammy, it was hidden. However, when Cammy arrived in Vernon, she quickly changed that model. Cammy essentially paved the way for harm reduction in this community.
“The original model, we just went out and walk around and handed out harm-reduction supplies,” Jan laughs. “Then we hired Cammy as a nurse, and when she came on the scene she said, ‘well no, you have to have a place for them to come to where they feel safe, and then we can start to talk to them about what going on for them.’”
Cammy helped create a place of compassion and understanding. A place with no judgment.
Cammy’s vision was a physical space where people could go to get basic supplies, but also a place that provided staff with the opportunity to connect with people and develop relationships.
“We used it as an engagement tool,” Dean explained. “It brought people into space and then you could really get to know their story. And then from there you could really do some real work and help them through whatever they were going through.”
In the early days, the clinic was not funded. It was largely staff who kept the donations coming in allowing for the clinic work to continue. It was again Cammy who led the way.
Cammy’s charisma, energy, passion and infectious smile allowed her to bring the message of harm reduction and the clinic’s work to the community as a whole.
Even if people didn’t agree with the concept, Cammy was able to speak to them in a way where they agreed with the model: People need to be cared for.
“She would go to churches and they would call her an angel,” Jan says with a laugh. “Cammy said, these are people. These are our family members that are dying and we need to help them.”
Through Cammy, harm reduction and anti-stigma talk became more well-known. More accepted.
“We wouldn’t be handing out harm reduction supplies in the way we are today if it wasn’t for Cammy,” Dean says knowingly. “We wouldn’t be addressing overdoses in the same way. I know that there is a lot of controversies, but I also know that most people are connected in some way to addiction, homelessness or mental health issues. So, that is why it forges on, even if people feel uncomfortable.”
When Cammy passed way in 2002, even though many knew it was inevitable — the cystic fibrosis was taking its toll — the community was devastated. Cammy’s was a spirit that burned bright a fast, one that left its mark on our community.
During a pubic ceremony held at Polson Park, Brian’s daughter stood in front of the assemblage and spoke. Brian recalls his daughter saying that she wished Cammy was her mother.
There wasn’t a dry eye.
In honour of her work and commitment, shortly after her passing the clinic was officially named: The Cammy LaFleur Outreach Program — a simple but fitting tribute to the person who helped to build the model the clinic still uses today.
Cammy’s legacy lives on in those who followed her path. It lives on in the nurses and outreach workers who picked up her torch and continue to run with it, fighting stigma and promoting harm reduction as a way to save lives.
In 2019, the Cammy LaFleur Outreach Program left NOYFSS and became part of the continuum of services offered by Turning Points Collaborative Society. Today Alison Houweling runs the program as a harm reduction educator and counsellor.
“For Cammy to make the inroads she did at a time when harm reduction work was absolutely unacceptable, she had to be a very brave, strong and fully compassionate woman. Her presence carries on in our clinic through the people’s lives she touched and the legacy that positions the clinic with such a strong social justice orientation. I can only hope my work is oriented by such a strong moral compass and relentlessness as hers was.”
Right alongside Alison is Brian.
Brian now works part-time with the Cammy LaFleur Outreach Program, seeing his younger self in the faces he helps; trying to help in the same way that Cammy once helped him.
“Every single person who has worked at the clinic since Cam’s been gone has tried to keep her legacy going to the best of their ability,” he says. “In every single person who has worked at the clinic, Cammy shines through in some way.”
At night, Brian still heads to the NOYFSS building to clean up garbage often sitting on the bench outside, letting his thoughts drift to memories of his friend.
Until his final breath, he vows to protect the clinic and Cammy’s legacy.
“I just kept seeing her. Every day I think about her. I wanted to make her proud of me. Somehow, I think she is.”
Brian pauses before continuing, “It feels good. And I let it feel good. I think she is smiling down.”
Josh Winquist is the director of public relations at Vernon’s Turning Points Collaborative Society.