n Toronto, when we think about harm reduction, we often think of clinical strategies aimed at reducing risks related to substance use.
Harm reduction strategies are individually tailored and prioritize dignity and respect for drug users, but they do not typically incorporate holistic community values and history. A regalia-making program at South Riverdale Community Health Centre (SRCHC) is demonstrating how culture and belonging can mitigate the effects of substance use related harm among Indigenous women who use drugs.
Harm reduction has always been a part of the Indigenous way of life says Les Harper, the Indigenous Health Promoter at SRCHC. “We believe in a cultural setting that has harm reduction,” explains Harper.
Harper, a Riverdale resident, leads the regalia-making program at SRCHC. The program supported five Indigenous women who participated over a period of eight weeks from May to August last year.
Throughout his life, Harper observed the harmful stereotype of Indigenous people as “drunken Indians” without most understanding the root causes of addiction. The concept for the regalia-making workshops emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic, influenced by the devastating impact of the virus on his community, especially among unhoused individuals who faced both COVID-19 and drug overdose risks.
To honour those lost, Harper regularly organizes drum circles in Moss Park and at City Hall. At one such event, he saw Chrissy Kewayosh, who had participated in the regalia-making workshop, dancing joyfully. Inspired, he came up with the idea and introduced other women from the community, many of whom frequented SRCHC's safe injection site, to the regalia-making workshops. This offered them an opportunity to create regalia despite most having no prior experience.
“Doing this work, we would always bring our culture to everything we did because we really believe that culture saves lives,” said Harper. “And culture is something that connects to everybody. It’s not a religion. It is not something that you have to commit to. We see that culture can be open [in] so many ways.”
The regalia-making program included participants Allison Francis, Delores Collins, Melanie Brown, Dakwaakin Dick and Chrissy Kewayosh.
Through the program, the five women crafted regalia, traditional clothing worn by Indigenous peoples at events like powwows, which represent their culture, ancestry, and personal narratives. Guided by Nichole Leveck, a regalia maker and community dancer, they created clothing including shawls and jingle dresses from scratch. The program concluded with the women performing in a coming-out circle, accompanied by a drum circle, on the field between the centre and a church.
Elder Wanda Whitebird provided guidance to the group. She named them the Northern Feathers Dance Troupe, symbolizing both their commonalities and unique contributions, according to a SRCHC report on the regalia-making program.
Melanie Brown, a Leslieville resident who has worked as a harm reduction worker and uses SRCHC’s harm reduction services, said that participating in the regalia-making program broke down barriers for her.
“I felt pride in being a part of a program that promoted harm reduction perspective, and welcomed women who may or may not be abstinent from drugs or alcohol,” said Brown.
“To participate in culturally significant activities and to be welcomed back into being a part of the gatherings and ceremony, and to not feel shame or stigma from the community…it’s a big step forward.”
One of the unique aspects of this program is that it is an Indigenous program headed by a non-Indigenous organization. Many regalia-making spaces typically require sobriety, which can be a barrier for many individuals. One program goal was to challenge community stigmas and misconceptions about participation in Indigenous cultural events.
Culture and acceptance
For Elder Wanda Whitebird, this regalia-making was an exciting opportunity as she felt she was just “part of the crew”. Elder Whitebird, who has known Harper since he was a teenager, was asked to be a part of the program by him. She says that she was there to build the women up and answer any questions they had. She loved listening to the laughter and shouts of joy from the women during the regalia-making and seeing them dance since.
“When we put together this regalia-making concept or togetherness, for these women, it was [about] giving back to them something they had lost,” said Elder Whitebird.
“This was an opportunity for them to create their own outfit and their own story and be able to dance. They already know how to dance, you don't really teach them how to dance. They listen to the drum and they move their feet, that was taken away from them…whatever trauma has entered their lives [led] them to use substances which took away their belief that they could [dance], because they were ‘less than’, and that's not true.”
For Elder Whitebird, supporting and accepting these women as they are is an act of unconditional love.
In the future, Harper intends to expand the program by incorporating moccasin-making and inviting more Indigenous women.
“People in our communities can fall through the cracks and easily [become] one of the statistics of murdered Indigenous women,” said Brown.
“So welcoming [women] back into the circle, I find it could help save someone’s life. Being ostracized from your community just because you are not abstinent [versus] not having that stigma placed upon you, it just relieves a lot of shame and so I think this [program] is a great thing. I’d love to see it progress, have more groups and see where it leads.”
A documentary film was made on the regalia-making program at the South Riverdale Community Health Centre featuring Les Harper, Elder Wanda Whitebird and Melanie Brown along with other members of the Northern Feathers Dance Troupe along with community members and additional leaders of the program. The film was edited and directed by Jason S. Cipparrone, and co-produced and developed by Sheltered Perspective Films and the South Riverdale Community Health Centre. Watch the trailer for the documentary here.