What is Harm Reduction?

Harm reduction is Indigenous. It is about self-determination, non-interference, non-disposability, non-judgment, love, care, respect, and relationships. Beyond these ways of being, some concrete ways that we as Indigenous people have always practised harm reduction / minimization include:

  • proper food preservation practices such as drying or smoking meat
  • living with the natural cycles of the world such as seasonal practices
  • specific land-based practices including governance models- what works on the coast does not necessarily transfer to the north or the prairies
  • sharing resources in community such as sharing fish/meat with Elders
  • understanding local weather before heading out on the water or on the land

Our communities / nations / people have always known how to care for ourselves and each other. We know what is best for us. Harm reduction allows us find ways to survive while taking into consideration the very real factors of our lives:

  • racism
  • intergenerational trauma
  • daily experiences of violence
  • poverty
  • displacement from ancestral territories
  • colonial violences
  • lack of housing

  • disconnection from family / lands / community
  • physical / spiritual / emotional/ mental pain
  • stress
  • anxiety
  • mental health
  • grief
  • homophobia / transphobia

[The following was originally written by one of our team members as a blog post for the Anti-Violence Project, and has been altered slightly and used with consent]

Harm reduction is a belief system that focuses on increasing safety and minimizing injury, disease, and death related to behaviours/actions that have risk. The philosophy emphasizes human rights and informed decision-making to empower personal choice, and help people make decisions that are the best for them. Harm reduction strategies greatly reduce the adverse health, social, and economic consequences of behaviours or actions that have associated risk.

Harm reduction is often considered controversial because many individuals think it only applies to illicit drug use. However, harm reduction is used every day by most of us because every day we do things that come with some risk. Here’s some examples of those activities and the harm reduction practice that goes with it

  • Driving/riding in a car – seat belts, traffic laws, headlights/signal/brake lights
  • Riding a bike – bike lanes, helmets, brakes, traffic laws
  • Walking – sidewalks, crosswalks
  • Eating – refrigeration, food safe practices, expiry/best before dates
  • Reading – glasses
  • Buying a coffee – regulations on holding temperatures
  • Being out in the world during cold/flu season – washing your hands
  • Being outside on a hot, sunny day – using sunscreen/hat, drinking water, sitting in the shade
  • Being on the water in a boat or canoe – wearing a life jacket, knowing about tides, knowing the weather forecast
  • Drinking alcohol – brewing regulations, eating food, drinking water, not driving
  • Having sex – using lube, condoms, dental dams, consent practices

Harm reduction means that there are ways to care for yourself even though you can’t or don’t want to stop a potentially risky behaviour. It meets you exactly where you are at without shame, stigma, or judgment and does not ask you to abstain (stop a behaviour or action), although abstinence is also considered a harm reduction practice so if you want to stop it will support you to do that. Shame, stigma, and judgment are never helpful tools and only succeed in increasing self-hate, isolation, shutting down conversations, and breaking relationships.

Harm reduction is an incredible relationship building tool because it doesn’t judge; it focuses on the prevention of harm rather than the prevention of behaviour/action; it views everyone as a person instead of engaging in stigmatizing labels such as “addict”; it recognizes the intersections of oppression and power; it seeks to make decisions with the persons affected by the decisions instead of for the persons affected; it allows room for practices to differ based on the person and the situation; it asks what causes the risks and harm rather than telling people they are “bad” and everything is their fault; it includes a wide array of behaviour from abstinence to constant use; and it holds dignity and compassion at the forefront by remembering that every life has value.

Big thanks to the folks at the Icarus Project, and the Young Women’s Empowerment Project (YWEP) for all their incredible and heart-centered harm reduction work. Their words have been used in the creation of this because they said it first and awesomely. And an extra big thanks to everyone (especially the peers) who has been doing harm reduction in grassroots ways for longer than I know. – Kîwetinohk Kîsik (trish pal)