IHRT (iheart) is a group of Indigenous folks who do harm reduction by and for Indigenous people on the lands of the Lkwungen, Esquimalt, and W̱SÁNEĆ peoples (referred to by its colonial name as southern Vancouver Island). We are individuals who come from many nations (including nations on the island), who hold many different skills and identities, and who practice harm reduction in many ways and in many places.
Some of the work we do includes: harm reduction education for Indigenous people, communities, nations, and service providers; harm reduction support; creating spaces where Indigenous people who use substances can access healing / art / culture; events and support by and for 2spirit folks; workshop and meeting facilitation; organizing; hosting; and capacity building.
Why an Indigenous harm reduction team?
As Indigenous people we know what is relevant in our communities and one thing particularly relevant right now is that our friends, family, and community members are dying. As a result of colonization and on-going colonialism, Indigenous people are over-represented in the current overdose/drug poisoning crisis. However, we are under-represented as paid harm reduction service providers, harm reduction educators, and harm reduction support.
Access to harm reduction education is literally the difference between life and death for our people. Unfortunately, many Indigenous people have had only negative experiences with education. The intergenerational legacy of residential schools cannot be forgotten, nor can current educational experiences of racism. Education delivered from a Settler perspective centers Settler knowledge and ways of knowing, erases Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing, and perpetuates white supremacy. As Indigenous people we know colonialism is deeply entrenched in our society, taught to us and reinforced at every turn, and incredibly easy to replicate unknowingly through dominant cultural assumptions many times every day. In order for culturally safe learning environments for Indigenous people to be created, we must all do our best to fight colonial replications such as hierarchies, including the historical one of ‘white experts’ and ‘ignorant Indians’. We believe these replications to be unintentional but the impact is very real, especially in the current crisis.
As Indigenous people, we need to see our own identity and experiences reflected back from knowledge holders. We need education that is grounded in Indigenous community concepts and values, and taught in culturally relevant ways. Harm reduction intrinsically holds Indigenous people as the experts of our own lives. Telling our own stories, in safe places, and being able to reframe them is not only healing, it also saves lives.
We need to have spaces by and for us, where we are able to build relationships and learn from each other, to talk about our stories in ways that make sense to us and reframe the settler colonial myth, and to hold each other as knowledgeable. We need spaces where Indigenous people who have been cut off from Indigenous community by residential schools, the 60s/70s scoop, displacement from home territory, and cultural suppression can grieve and prioritize reconnecting with other Indigenous people. We need to be able to access culture and healing in spaces where we are physically and emotionally safe enough to be open, not having to be on guard for White people exoticizing us, trying to steal our culture to fill their own emptiness, processing their guilt or other baggage about colonialism, or raging on us out of racist entitlement and greed.
We also need to work in ways that feel healthy to us as Indigenous people and that don’t replicate harm. Harm reduction includes paying attention to how we do things and the impacts of our actions on community well-being. That means we need to exist outside normie non-profits where care and relationships get exploited to build money and power, and where white supremacy culture gets entrenched in organizational structures. Being an Indigenous person isn’t a 9-5 job where we walk away from our community when our shift is done, so we need to go slow enough not to burn out, and check if we’re working in ways that feel like they have integrity (so we don’t burn our community relationships either). Some of the values that are important to us are:
- Indigenous people who use drugs or alcohol guide the team’s work, and get prioritized for paid hours
- you don’t need to be sober to participate either as a volunteer or participant
- community wellness, not sobriety, is the goal
- everyone has a right to healing and medicine
- we all bring strengths and knowledge to the circle
- knowledge is to be shared, not hoarded
- we value relationship
- conflict is natural and is an opportunity to grow
- we are all learning and will make mistakes, and we will be responsible for the impact of our actions
- we are accountable for any harm we do and relationship repair is important
- as people who have been thrown away, we value non-disposability
- we evolve and change as needed
- we are an independent and grassroots group
- we value Indigenous-only space
- we know what’s best for us and trust we can do many of those things ourselves
- we name and challenge white supremacy and colonization in all our work
- we have a wholistic harm reduction lens that includes everyday acts, small acts, practicing our ethics on the micro and macro scale
- we work towards community-based responses
How we got started – Terry’s legacy
In memory of Terry Doucette
Feb 23, 1975 – Jun 4, 2021
In the years before IHRT formed, Indigenous folks working in and accessing harm reduction services on Lkwungen Territory (‘victoria’) were frustrated by the lack of support specifically for Indigenous people who use substances. We were exasperated with service providers only sending White folks into Indigenous communities, and with not having Indigenous-specific spaces when approximately ⅓ of the population of the street community here is Indigenous.
Terry really wanted folks to have access to culture because he got to access it while in prison. But accessing culture when he got out was much harder and he longed for those opportunities. He wanted service providers to provide spaces where Indigenous folks could hold circles. He wanted to take folks to the ocean to grieve. He wanted to take folks to sweats and other ceremonies.
Scheming and dreaming about IHRT became serious in 2018 when harm reduction service providers refused to pay their Indigenous staff to do education with Indigenous communities or Indigenous organizations, and instead continued to send White people even after being told it was inappropriate to do that. In the spring of 2019, IHRT was officially born so we could do the work in the ways we knew it needed to be done — by Indigenous people, prioritizing paid work for people who use criminalized drugs (not White social workers), and working in caring and sustainable ways instead of White managers leaving peers to do the lowest paid / most traumatizing frontline response work.
We started by hosting healing circles for Indigenous folks, whether or not they were using substances – something that rarely happens. We brought in Elders through Tsow-Tun Le Lum, had traditional medicines for people to take with them, folks could smudge or get brushed off, and we made space for people to just come and be. We did Naloxone trainings in Indigenous communities and organizations, and organized a safer use workshop for Indigenous youth. We even got to take folks to a pow wow that summer!
When COVID hit in March 2020 almost all the survival services scaled back or closed their doors, and ‘supportive’ housing put no-guest policies in place. This left hundreds of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people suddenly living outside without access to basics like drinking water, handwashing / showers, laundry, or overdose prevention sites and harm reduction services. We immediately responded on the ground with outreach and moved to providing support to everyone during that time (not only Indigenous people). We started an alcohol withdrawal prevention program and a free laundry night, did Naloxone trainings where folks were camping, and we delivered water, handwashing stations, harm reduction supplies, hand sanitizer & masks for COVID prevention, and other basics. We did outreach most days, coordinated a guide to services to help people track what was open / closed in a time of a lot of change, and Terry set up a harm reduction supply tent downtown.
By February 2021 things were changing with the COVID situation here. With vaccines becoming available most survival services were opening back up, less people were living outside, and there were also more service providers doing outreach. We decided to stop doing general outreach and go back to doing harm reduction work specifically with Indigenous people. We were still working on finding an indoor space to get circles and art groups going, when Terry died.
The things we did could not have happened without Terry. He was a dreamer and the ‘big idea’ guy. He also knew what was missing and how to name the gaps that White service providers didn’t see / refused to address. Terry helped birth IHRT and we hope to always live up to his memory. He will be deeply missed and meetings will seem much too quiet without him. Rest in Peace, neechi.