Larissa Healey whirls around, their movements as sweeping and graceful as they are powerful, imitating the sway of grasslands on a windy day. They are dressed in full regalia, the traditional and sacred clothing of Anishinaabe Indigenous culture.
On their head is a porcupine quill headdress topped with black-tipped eagle feathers and beading hangs down their tunic made of crushed velvet and red and gold embossed floral fabric.
Healey is performing the grass dance familiar to many First Nations people. It is usually danced by men but they are dancing it as a two-spirit, a term commonly used by First Nations people to describe someone who embodies both male and female identities.
They spin on their heels, stomp and kick their foot out far before bringing it back again, a move that symbolizes being chased by the buffalo ‘when we almost go off a cliff but we come back’. It’s a fitting step for Healey. Back when she was living on the streets, things were so tough it felt almost like she might fall over the cliff edge herself, she explains.
It’s late June and at Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre (DEWC) celebrations for Indigenous People’s Day are in full swing.
‘This place saved my life,’ Healey says of the centre, which sits just off East Hastings, a downtown eastside thoroughfare where the sidewalk spills over with houseless people, camped out amidst their belongings. Many of them are using drugs like crack cocaine or the synthetic opioid, fentanyl.
As a central strand of its work, the centre supports Indigenous women to heal by helping them reconnect with their culture. It is here that Healey first got help and began a long journey of rediscovery that they believe holds a key to addressing links between colonialism and Canada’s opioid crisis.
The crisis is stark. Data from British Colombia’s Coroners service suggests 2,272 people in the state died last year of drug overdoses. That’s more than six people per day across a state of just over five million people. And it is Indigenous, or First Nations, women who are disproportionately impacted – death rates for them were 8.8 times higher than for non-Indigenous women last year in this province.
Healey, now 51, hasn’t used drugs for over 20 years but they still remember how it feels to be caught up in that cycle. They explain: ‘I was involved in a lot of really heavy stuff back in the day.’ In their late twenties they were on the streets ‘and one of my elders came and saw me and said, “do you want something to eat?” And eventually, I said “yes”’.
The elder pointed them to the Women’s Centre, which was then ‘a small slot in the wall’ and eventually, Healey began to accept help. That ‘basic spark of connection’ helped to change their life. ‘I didn’t know what was wrong with me back then, and coming here I was able to find a family.’
Adopted and raised by a white father and Japanese mother, Healey felt divorced from their Anishinaabe roots. With the help of the DEWC and other organizations they started to reconnect with a culture that felt it had been buried deep within. But it wasn’t until their late thirties they started going to powwows – traditional Indigenous gatherings – where they were encouraged to learn to dance and their sense of self started to blossom.
Then in 2020 Healey learned they were part of the ‘Sixties Scoop’ – a period from the late 1950s to the early 1980s when Canadian child welfare policies allowed authorities to ‘scoop up’ children thought to be neglected from Indigenous communities and place them in foster homes from which they were often adopted by white families.
‘I almost didn’t catch my culture because of that systematic annihilation of our people,’ Healey says. ‘But I’m here today, dancing grass in full regalia. Our people are not going anywhere.’
Truth and reconciliation
Healey’s sense of state betrayal is shared by many here in BC. On 30 September Canada will mark the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, which honours the children who died at the country’s residential schools, as well as those who survived them, their families and communities.
Between 1883 and 1996, an estimated 150,000 Indigenous children passed through the school system, which served to isolate them from the influence of their culture and aimed to assimilate them into the now dominant Canadian settler society. In 2015 the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded that the system was a form of ‘cultural genocide’. It found at least 4,100 students had died or gone missing from the residential schools.
At the women’s centre many have experienced associated trauma. Hanging in the bright and welcoming main space – today filled with women enjoying the communal lunch – cut-outs of red dresses hang alongside the dream catchers. The garment has been used as a symbol to raise awareness of Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirits.
The opioid crisis has led to even more grief. At the entrance a memorial table, full of flowers, candles, pictures of women and funeral programmes, is a stark reminder. During the Covid-19 restrictions, with the drug deaths in the city at a record high, the level of loss felt ‘just unbearable’ says director of programmes Candy Tladi.
‘Almost every other week, when women walked in and looked at that table, there was a new face,’ she says, explaining that women who use drugs or who are street homeless are vulnerable to all sorts of dangers.
‘Of the women we surveyed a few years ago, 48 per cent had experienced sexual violence in the past two years. It’s just unbelievable. You just cannot wrap your head around it,’ she says. In the same survey two out of three Indigenous women said they knew someone who had either passed away from an overdose, gone missing or been murdered.
Call to action
In April 2019 the centre released a report – ‘Red Women Rising: Indigenous women survivors in Vancouver’s downtown eastside’ – based on the experience and expertise of over 100 women.
The findings were clear. ‘We know that the over-representation in statistics on homicides, poverty, homelessness, child apprehensions, police street checks, incarceration and overdose fatalities is not a coincidence,’ it stated.
‘It is part of an infrastructure of gendered colonial violence. Colonial state practices target women for removal from Indigenous lands, tear children from their families, enforce impoverishment, and manufacture the conditions for dehumanisation.’
The report was a call for action. Yet four years on, many of its detailed recommendations have not been taken up by authorities.
Meanwhile, the centre is doing what it can to help women heal. Each week women can take part in regalia making, learn beading, or find out about Indigenous medicines and plants. There is a grandmother's circle where younger women can learn from their elders or share stories, healing circles as well as the opportunity to join pow wows.
‘It helps the Indigenous women connect to the land for them to also connect amongst themselves, build those individual connections, reflect on where, who they are, how far they’ve come and even search for their relatives,’ explains Tladi. ‘Being able to create that space for Indigenous women to get together provides so many opportunities to start or continue the process of healing.’
The last residential school may have closed 27 years ago, but trauma is still carried down through the generations, says the centre’s mental health advocate Tayna Green. She was brought up by residential school survivors and felt the echoes of that structural violence.
Last August, Green returned to downtown eastside, where she was raised, so she could be with family. ‘My aunt was addicted to some heavy drugs, and she lived down here,’ she explains. ‘I wanted to try and help make a difference to my people, because we just need so much more out there.’
Green, who herself escaped an abusive relationship, understands both the practical and structural barriers women are facing. Many, she says, end up homeless after fleeing domestic abuse. But if they can’t find somewhere to live, they can end up ‘stuck in the rabbit hole of using substances’ trying to ‘numb themselves and avoid the reality of what they're faced with’.
In part, Green sees the power of being there to listen: ‘Some women just come in, because they want to talk through their triggers and their traumas,’ she says. ‘They need to be validated and heard.’ But her role also includes advocating for women to ensure their needs – from housing to trauma support – are met, as well as helping women to advocate for themselves. Indigenous women are disproportionately represented in the homeless community here.
Although exact data is difficult to quantify, there are many concrete examples that Green’s work at the centre has an impact. ‘It’s really nice to meet women who we’ve been able to help,’ she says. ‘One lady, for example, was getting bullied by her landlord. It was so rewarding to hear that she ended up winning her arbitration with him, that she was able to stand up for herself and advocate for her rights.’
Like Healey, Green says reconnecting with First Nations culture has been a critical part of her ability to find her own voice and tap into her inner strength. She now uses smudging – burning sweetgrass and sage – water immersion and other traditional practices to help her deal with the pain of the past and better understand her future.
‘Instead of using substances to numb, I feel it's important that people know there are other ways of dealing with trauma,’ she says. ‘I'd like people to know that there are tools. We just need to understand that we have the ability to use them.’
The approach is not new – it’s been practised by groups like the peer-led Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society further up East Hastings for almost two decades. But it’s becoming increasingly present in mainstream services like this.
There is also an increasing body of research and evaluations, such as that of the Naandwe Miikan (Healing Path) programme, that demonstrates that culturally aware approaches – from consciousness raising to the use of Indigenous healing as part of opioid replacement programmes – are effective.
In March 2020 an article in the Harm Reduction Journal identified barriers for Indigenous people in accessing treatment. Study authors, who used talking circles as part of their research, recorded ‘culturally inappropriate structures and policies’ in available programmes such as ‘forced Christianity’ and highlighted the importance of ‘culturally relevant, peer-led substance use treatment programming’.
The systemic discrimination in Canada’s health system is well documented and was a factor in the foundation of BC's First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) in 2013. In April this year it received an additional $8.2 billion [US$6.7 billion] from the Canadian federal government to support its programmes over the next decade.
In August, FNHA’s anti-stigma and harm reduction campaign, in partnership with Vancouver Coastal Health, highlighted the impact of the opioid crisis and ran with the tagline ‘culture is medicine’. ‘We need to reignite the will, the energy, our intentions and actions to…significantly reduce the number of First Nations deaths and associated harms,’ Nel Wieman, FNHA acting chief medical officer said at its launch.
Back at the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre the day’s events are coming to a close. Outside women gather with drums to perform the Women’s Warrior Song, drumsticks held aloft as they sing in honour of women no longer there, including those missing or murdered.
There is great power in cultural reconnection, says Candy Tladi. But there is also a need for continued systemic change. ‘We have a crisis in front of us,’ she says. ‘And if people are still in denial of that it means they do not value the lives of the women in this community
‘We find the likes of the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre and others are having to step up and be there for women. And we will step forward and do what needs to be done.’
This project was funded by the European Journalism Centre through the Solutions Journalism Accelerator. This fund is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.