Misrepresented folks are disproportionately affected by settler colonial standards of wellness through its narrow views. The war on drugs and the violence perpetrated by colonial frameworks can only be dismantled when these frameworks become intersectional and decolonial.
As stated by Brooke Alexandria Paine, NHRC “we are able to centre queer, trans, and non binary experiences only because of the foundations laid by black and brown transgendered activists who used drugs and engaged in sex work….We stand on the shoulders and in the shadows of freedom fighters like Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Stormé DeLarverie, among others”
I am a mixed, settler/Indigenous femme living, working, and creating in the infamous DTES of so-called “Vancouver”. I am a multi-media artist and nurse. As a nurse working at Urban Indigenous Health and Healing Cooperative (UIHHC) and Insite (North America’s first sanctioned supervised drug injection site), I have witnessed the direct effects of concurrent health crises (COVID and opiate pandemics) on systematically marginalized and under-served populations. As an artist, I work to re-center the experiences, embodiments and expressions of misrepresented peoples, including those who are harmed by the war on drugs and white settler cis-hetero patriarchy.
My artistic and nursing practices are closely guided by Indigenous epistemology from my matrilineal ancestors (Nahuat). Queer Chicana feminist, Gloria Anzaldúa’s theory the “coyoxaulqui imperative” has shaped my sense-making regarding harm reduction significantly. The imperative explains the ongoing process of healing a deeply wounded self that fragments spiritually, emotionally and psychologically. It signifies the need to look at, bring together and integrate the fragments in order to heal as a whole (person, community and so on).
These photos depict two close friends’ sense of self. One in the vulnerable space of recent change in relationship with their substance use, the other displaying their most desired self in relationship with sex work. Both are queering gender, sexuality, power, discrimination and marginalization. In doing so, they are demonstrating the tensions that exist between who we desire to be and who we are desired to be. The latter being a determinant of “worth.”
Photography by Alexa Black. Tintype. 5″ x 4″.
Photography by Alexa Black. Tintype and tint. 4″ x 5″.
Photography by Alexa Black. Tintype and tint. 5″ x 4″.
Photography by Alexa Black. Tintype. 5″ x 4″. Model: emerencz
Provincial COVID -19 “safety measures” have contributed to declines in community gathering, harm reduction service usage and mental health. Combined, they have restricted access to safe supply and safe usage. Consequently, there has been an overwhelming increase in overdoses. Indigenous overdose deaths doubled during COVID in comparison to the previous year (FNHA, 2021).
Pan-Indigenous approaches and the four pillars health care model (prevention, harm reduction, treatment and enforcement) have coalesced to erase our unique and multifaceted experiences and sustain colonial standards of wellness. COVID has triggered many of us to revisit the resentments and skepticism of exploitation and experimentation on Indigenous bodies. Our experiences are valid and unique and complex. We are worthy of care. And that care needs to not only address ongoing harms but also account for the uniqueness of our experiences.
Indigenous epistemology can guide our care priority-setting.
The fragmentation experienced due to colonialism varies in presentation as we are further removed from our roots and enmeshed into colonial frameworks. There are clinics and other sites at UIHHC that are shifting paradigms to centre culture, consider the impacts of colonial structures and offer safe injectable programs and Elder support.
Visibility and normalization of variance is harm reduction. To be seen, heard and respected is harm reduction. It is not enough to use the term decolonization as a metaphor (Tuck & Wang, 2012). We must sincerely continue to investigate and assess our own conditioning and histories in order to stop the perpetuation of harmful structures that continuously erase and disproportionately harm marginalized populations.