Tla’amin First Nation invests in survival

qathet Living, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

After a year and a half of working with First Nations across Vancouver Island as harm reduction educator, Courtney Harrop has taken on a new position: Tla’amin Nation’s harm reduction coordinator.

“All lives have value,” says Courtney. “Harm reduction allows us to reduce harms or potential risks for all kinds of things, not just drugs and alcohol. Harm reduction also helps us to be more cautious and supportive around things like safer sex, blood-borne transmitted diseases and STI’s, as well as housing and food insecurity.”

Although the coordinator role is recent, harm reduction has been happening in the Nation since 2017.

Introducing harm reduction services was Tla’amin’s response to the Province’s declaration of a Public Health Emergency of the toxic drug crisis in 2016.

“The late Chegajemiux (Kevin Blaney) was a huge community leader in harm reduction until his passing in October 2021,” says Courtney.

“He created the hot lunch food delivery program in 2020 – the height of the pandemic. The program delivers prepared meals for Nation members that may not have good food security or are not able to drive out into town for groceries.”

The hot lunch program currently has 20 participants and the harm reduction team has carried on Chegajemiux’s work. Courtney says there is one peer who does the shopping and cooking, and a second peer who delivers the food.

Peers are people with lived or living experience with substance and alcohol use, who work supporting people who use substances, alongside harm reduction programs. Tla’amin’s hot lunch program happens twice a month.

During the Nation’s COVID lockdown in September 2020, Tla’amin teamed up with the Vancouver Coastal Health harm reduction team and provided pop-up tents for members to get prescriptions to help with withdrawal symptoms, and a phone line available for anyone seeking support or in need of outreach.

Nation peers also helped with getting groceries delivered, provided access to safe substance use supplies, and naloxone.

“A few months ago we actually started up an opioid agonist therapy (OAT) clinic at Tla’amin Health, where OAT medication is dispensed by nurses on our team,” Courtney says.

“During COVID we had to increase our response for vulnerable people in the community.

“Facing withdrawal symptoms alone creates a whole other situation that can be quite dangerous. We provided these pop-up tents to help balance this out.”

More recently, Courtney and the team have collaborated with qathet’s Youth Community Action Team (YouthCAT) to provide a harm reduction pop-up tent and safe rides for 2022’s wet grad.

There was a small team of youth volunteers that delivered water, juice boxes, snacks to the folks at wet grad. The tent also had naloxone kits, personal care kits, and information on harm reduction.

“It was very successful and we had nothing but positive feedback from parents. We made notes of what to include next year too, things like fairy lights for the bridge are on the list because it was very dark,” Courtney says.

Last October, Tla’amin’s harm reduction team worked with LIFT to create the CARE (Compassionate Access to Resources for Everyone) cupboard, which was completed in December.

The CARE cupboard is on the river roadside of the Tla’amin Firehall, and has free equipment such as naloxone, fentanyl drug strips, personal care kits, and safe substance use supplies that get refilled each week.

On July 1, the team held a community engagement event at the Nation’s firehall supported by a small grant from the First Nations Health Authority. Naloxone training was provided as well as take-home kits, nasal and injectable kits, information sheets on substance use, and barbecue.

There are many projects in the works for Tla’amin’s harm reduction team too; there are final consultations with Elders and the cultural team for an ayajuthem name for the program.

The team is setting up Tla’amin’s previous fieldhouse to move the harm reduction team and programs into, as well as expanding the OAT clinic, and developing a Community Managed Alcohol program.

The projects don’t stop there. The harm reduction team is also working on another community engagement event for August 31, International Overdose Awareness Day, with details to be announced. That will be the grand opening of the team’s new location.

“Currently we are working out of Tla’amin Health; it will be great to have our own permanent location to run our programs out of,” Courtney says. “International Overdose Awareness Day is a day to remember and honour those we have lost to the toxic drug crisis since 2016.”

Tla’amin isn’t the only First Nation in BC that’s tackling harm reduction either.

An Indigenous-led harm reduction team on Vancouver Island called iHRT (Indigenous Harm Reduction Team) uses traditional medicines such as sage and sweetgrass to help with withdrawal. The team also has workshops, art groups, healing circles, and community engagement events centred around Indigenous culture.

In Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society hosts weekly meetings and healing circles. For about four months of the year, they travel to a UBC farm on Musqueam territory where members connect with nature, help harvest crops, and work in a kitchen.

“I take a lot of inspiration from iHRT and other Indigenous led groups in places like Downtown Eastside’s WAHRS program. I believe being connected to community and culture is what saves lives,” says Courtney.

“There’s lots of stigma around substance use, harm reduction, and the toxic drug crisis, and it’s hard. But we have to work through this, it takes a community and wrap-around approaches. I think it’s so valuable to have Indigenous and peer led groups doing this in the community.

“Harm reduction allows us to meet where people are at in a non-judgmental way, and because of that it helps us reach everyone we need to. Harm reduction is just love.”

Top image credit: Lydia Line from the Tla’amin Nation Fire Department trains community members Davis McKenzie (top right) and Crystal Louie (bottom right) to use naloxone kits. – Photo submitted by Courtney Harrop

Sign-up for Cortes Currents email-out:

To receive an emailed catalogue of articles on Cortes Currents, send a (blank) email to subscribe to your desired frequency: