“We are human beings with heart and potential” – A message from Indigenous drug users to the medical profession

On May 27 Tracey Morrison received the Nothing About Us Without Us Community Leadership Award from the Urban Health Research Initiative at a ceremony at St. Paul's Hospital. The award was presented by Dr. Thomas Kerr. Kerr said Tracey
On May 27 Tracey Morrison received the Nothing About Us Without Us Community Leadership Award from the Urban Health Research Initiative at a ceremony at St. Paul’s Hospital. The award was presented by Dr. Thomas Kerr. Kerr said Tracey “has been a great leader, keeping our group focused and on task.” Another person who presented the award, Christy Sutherland, said that Tracey did “incredible work.” Tracey received the award for her work with WAHRS and the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV and AIDS.

The Volcano interviewed Tracey Morrison, President of Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood. WAHRS is a group of current and former illicit drug and/or alcohol users.*

Volcano: Tell us about the research you’re so enthusiastic about.

Tracey: The story begins with the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV and AIDS. They are indigenizing our research through talking circles. I say “our” research because it is WAHRS that is doing the actual research. We have had talking circles on four subjects where we gather information. It’s not research done in the conventional way where people from the outside come in and research us.

The topics for the four circles are access to health care, access to detox, experiences in HIV and AIDS and experiences in research. With the old way of research, people were just tired of being lab rats and the outcomes of the research came back really technical.

Volcano: How do the talking circles work?

Tracey: We had three a month for a year and a half. We pick 8 participants in our Friday WAHRS meetings. Those 8 participants have to commit to 3 sessions per month every Friday after our regular meeting. Fridays are really busy for our board cause we all prepare for this from 10 to 4 pm and we do it faithfully, no complaints. I’m really thankful for the board members I work with.

In the Downtown Eastside people get desensitized to trauma and people passing away. We found in the talking circle that there is a need for people to tell their stories and help heal from these traumas.

People who are very quiet in our regular Friday meetings have been talkative in the healing circles. It’s amazing. There’s a lot of people who pass the feather on so they don’t have to talk but people are taking the feather and speaking of their heart, their soul, their minds, with the feather in their hands. There’s so much cleansing of your soul in these circles. I know it sounds sort of spiritual, but it is. I’m going to keep this going as long as I can. Culturally and traditionally, a lot of people want to get back to who they are, where they’re from, Ojibway, Mohawk, Cree. I’m one of them. I’d like to speak my own language. I’d like to sing my grandpa’s songs that he sang to me as a child.

We get anonymous evaluations. Some of it just blows me away. From the first circle to the third, it changes a person’s life, from crying, sobbing when they have to leave the circle, to fighting those demons so that in the third circle they’re doing well.

We always bring what we find in each circle back to our members. All WAHRS members could be in the talking circles but they didn’t all come. So after we had the circles we brought the results to our regular Friday meeting.   If people weren’t in the talking circle, they had a chance to talk about it there. We had help. Kim Fleming was our project co-ordinator.   The research was key to how together our board is now. We learned everything along the way. Our hands were in the planning, the talking circle, the analytical part and right now we’re in our knowledge translation, what we would like to see happen. Our research is not even done and we already have an action in place. The One Heart Healing Circle comes from the talking circles. The BC Centre for Excellence is really happy, because we already have an action in our research, and sometimes no action comes from research. So I’m really proud of our members.

I’m hoping that the project will go on forever. Miraculously we got funding for another year. We’ve seen so much progress in people. They are getting stronger. We’re doing groundbreaking healing here. What makes it good is the confidentiality of it all.

I’ve been in other healing circles where people knew that I’m an alcoholic. Then I’d hear about it somewhere else. Here for some reason everything stays in the circle. We have a spiritual leader in our healing circle. Martin Sparrow came along and the Creator told him that he needs to be here. It was hard in the beginning but now he realizes why he has to be here: To give us strength in our minds and in our hearts. He’s awesome.

Volcano: What’s groundbreaking about it?

Tracey receiving the Nothing About Us Without Us award
Tracey receiving the Nothing About Us Without Us award

Tracey: I envision an Aboriginal Healing and Wellness Centre working like our healing circle works. We just talk. It’s what the creator puts in front of us. There is no topic, no agenda. If I’m on I always talk right away. I have happy or scary things to say. I know my peers in the circle are there to support me, not to judge me. It’s an amazing healing circle.

Volcano: Is the Centre for Excellence using this research?

Tracey: We are using it. It’s us with our knowledge translation. We already presented it to nurses who deal with HIV and AIDS. We told them our findings from our 4 topics—4 of us went to present. I don’t want to trivialize the research but we just want to have respect, dignity, trust our doctors, trust people who are policy makers to listen to our recommendations.

Our main recommendations are to have trust, respect, dignity, to be treated like we matter, that we’re not just a bunch of drunks and addicts. We’re human beings with heart and potential.

*“We don’t use the word ‘addicts’,” says Tracey. “That word just puts a stamp on people and dehumanizes them.”

Some recommendations from the WAHRS research project

On research

  • Researchers must report back to the ones being researched
  • The research work should be relationship based
  • The research should be culturally relevant and peer driven

On accessing health care

  • People want to be treated with dignity
  • Connect health to culture and the Creator
  • We need more addiction specialists
  • It’s really important to understand that trauma, grief, pain and basic survival are at the front of people’s experience

On detox and treatment

  •   There are too many barriers to accessing treatment
  •   We need more culturally relevant treatment places (religious-based treatment triggers many people)


  •   Don’t assume we know the correct information
  •   Information should relate to indigenous culture and be easy to understand
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