Regional HIV/AIDS Connection (RHAC)’s Director of Harm Reduction, Sonja Burke, has made the decision to start her retirement journey, effective July 28, 2023.
Sonja’s career at RHAC spans 11 years of compassionate and dedicated service. During that time, Sonja has earned the respected recognition of her colleagues and community as a leader, collaborator, and advocate. Her contributions and efforts have been instrumental in the adoption and expansion of life-saving harm reduction programs, including our Counterpoint and Carepoint programs. Sonja’s long-term leadership fostered a Harm Reduction department—which started out in 2012 with 2 staff members and 2 satellite sites—into a frontline of 40+ staff and 29 satellite locations (including hospitals, mobile units, pharmacies, and partner agencies). In building RHAC’s Harm Reduction team, Sonja has remained an ally and advocate for employees and peers with lived/living experience. In 2020, she expanded the Harm Reduction Peer Program, which centres opportunities for people who use(d) substances to support our collective response to the ongoing toxic drug crisis.
Sonja has been a pivotal force in extending access to vital harm reduction supports—namely as a key driver behind the pilots and partnerships which: introduced Ontario’s first sanctioned Temporary Overdose Prevention Site (TOPS), now the permanent Carepoint Consumption and Treatment Service; welcomed Harm Reduction workers and strategies in hospitals; supported the Health Outreach Mobile Engagement (H.O.M.E) program in 2021; rolled out mobile outreach vans in Elgin and Oxford counties; and introduced the Naloxone Program in 2014. In addition to her many responsibilities at RHAC, Sonja has contributed to countless committees and collaborations, including:
- Serving on the Steering Committee for the Middlesex-London Community Drug and Alcohol Strategy (CDAS) as a Harm Reduction Pillar Co-Chair to develop a long-term, locally-developed strategy for London and Middlesex;
- Supporting and participating in approximately 31 harm reduction research studies;
- Sitting on multiple provincial and national working groups to address harm reduction, supervised consumption, splitting and sharing within supervised consumption sites, and safe inhalation; and
- The Provincial Harm Reduction Advisory Committee.
Her work has reflected an unwavering commitment to social justice by centering inclusive, dignified and culturally-safe care for marginalized community members. In 2018, she helped to launch RHAC’s Harm Reduction Services partnership with Southwest Ontario Aboriginal Health Access Centre (SOAHAC) and Chippewa of the Thames Health Centre. That same year, Sonja received the 2018 Atlohsa Peace Award for Bravery in recognition of her work towards Truth and Reconciliation.
In the face of stigma and adversity, Sonja has led fellow change-makers with the courage to do what is right. Her legacy is one of unparalleled courage. Perhaps Sonja’s perseverance is best exemplified by her steering of the 7-year journey to permanently house the Carepoint Consumption and Treatment Service at 446 York Street. Alongside a dedicated team, Sonja worked tirelessly to keep services available and accessible amid a global pandemic and the complex relocation process. Most recently, she welcomed the launch of innovative drug-checking technology at Carepoint, which will allow staff and participants to test the toxicity of substances and prevent drug poisonings.
Sonja’s impassioned voice and vision have informed the cutting-edge and compassionate quality of care that RHAC’s Harm Reduction programs offer our community. Her lasting impact is nothing short of life-saving and barrier-breaking. Please join us in extending our greatest gratitude to Sonja as we wish her the very best in her retirement!
In the coming months, RHAC will be conducting a search for RHAC’s next Director of Harm Reduction.