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Harm Reduction 101 workshop discusses models and strategies for building stronger communities

The Indigenous Women and Two-Spirit Harm Reduction Coalition (IW2SHRC) hosted a two-hour workshop on Sunday, Nov. 16 as part of the Mental Health Awareness Week. Titled “Harm Reduction 101”, the interactive workshop discussed essential harm reduction practices, especially regarding drug use and HIV/AIDS among the indigenous community.

Lindsay Nixon, U3 Honours Women’s Studies student at Concordia University and moderator at the workshop, described the history of the harm reduction approach and how it has changed over the years.

“The term originated from HIV/AIDS activism and drug use in the late 1980s in New York,” she said. “But our understanding of the term has expanded beyond drug use and safer sex to include everything from literacy and labour conditions to student life and interpersonal relations.”

Molly Swain, U4 Honours Women’s Studies McGill student and moderator, emphasized the urgent need to raise awareness about harm reduction practices, especially in indigenous communities.

“New cases of HIV/AIDS are increasing the most rapidly in Canada among Indigenous people,” she pointed out. “The lack of prompt response to [this] is, among other reasons, caused by the stereotyping of indigenous peoples as an inherently dysfunctional group.”

Nixon further explained that the crux of the harm reduction ideology is the importance of people’s autonomy and self-determination.

“Harm reduction practices that focus on drug use don’t focus on the prevention of the drug use itself, but on reducing the harm in the lives of the people who continue to use drugs,” Swain said. “Harm reduction practitioners acknowledge that people are the experts of their own lives and are best able to determine what they really need.”

Criticizing prohibition, Swain said that initiatives and policies that are meant to reduce and prevent actual drug use do not work.

“People continue to use drugs despite the risk of penalization,” she said. “Thus, these preventive and reductive policies serve to further stigmatize and marginalize drug users which isolates them and affects their ability to access mainstream health care and social services.”

Swain further discussed the importance of understanding the causes of harm in order to implement effective harm reduction interventions.

“Some factors that make drug users especially vulnerable are racism, colonialism, sexism, criminalization, and capitalism,” she said. “For example, a low-income person of colour who uses drugs may not seek medical treatment because he may be criminalized for it, whereas an upper-middle class caucasian McGill student who may have used a little too much can most likely get treatment at the emergency room without being penalized for it.”

The organization arranges workshops and educational initiatives in addition to providing harm reduction resources, referrals, and materials to indigenous people in Montreal and beyond, according to Swain.

“Harm reduction is a whole plethora of different practices and strategies that people use to cope with all kinds of problems in their lives,” Swain said.

Nixon elaborated on the organization’s mandate.

“We believe in facilitating harm reduction practices for Indigenous peoples in Montreal,” Nixon said. “We run under the premise that colonization is harmful, so decolonization is imperative for the survival and well being of Indigenous communities.”

According to Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) VP University Affairs Claire Stewart-Kanigan, Mental Health Awareness Week was a success.

“Attendance was  consistent at our over 20 events, partnerships across campus were strong, and students were very supportive of the week’s theme,” she said. “We set out to focus the week around key elements of our broader plan for approaching mental health on campus—cross-campus partnerships, peer-based support, self-care, intersectionality, and institutional accountability—and I believe the final outcome reflected this.”

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