Pivot builds capacity of Victoria harm reduction groups for social advocacy
Roughly eleven years ago, a fledgling Pivot Legal Society pioneered in Canada the strategy of documenting the voices of marginalized persons to build a body of evidence for advocacy. We've had some great successes and learned many lessons over the years. We' ve made meaningful change by this process in our campaigns for sex worker rights, police accountability, housing and child welfare. By documenting these voices, we've been able to move beyond allegations and academic discussion into documented evidence that paints a picture of peoples' lives and uses their own stories for social advocacy. We've produced reports targeted at decision-makers, and on the basis of affidavits have brought a Charter challenge seeking to strike down unfair and harmful laws that put sex workers at risk.
Today, Katrina Pacey and I spent the afternoon training fourteen Victoria community harm-reduction activists on techniques of affidavit drafting and discussed the strategy of an affidavit-based campaign. The activists represented several groups in Victoria, including Together Against Poverty Society (TAPS), Harm Reduction Victoria, AIDS Vancouver Island (AVI), Society of Living Illicit Drug Users (SOLID), and Vancouver Island Public Interest Research Group (VIPIRG). The activists are concerned about police targeting drug users in their community and harassing of people delivering harm reduction services. They wanted to develop the skills to document experiences of community members with police and use this evidence to advocate for fairness and rights. Katrina brought along her long and invaluable history of working on Pivot affidavit campaigns and strategies to the table, and I focused on training the more technical skills of drafting an affidavit.
Victoria has had a difficult time over the last years providing harm reduction services to drug users [take a look at Pivot intern Fathima Cader's excellent blog post]. VIPIRG and other groups have focused on advocacy around police profiling of members of Victoria's street community. These unfair policing efforts have increased the barriers to access to harm reduction supplies and other services, and interfere with this community's rightful access to public space free of harassment.
On the four-year anniversary of the closure of the city's fixed-site needle exchange at the end of May, Pivot co-hosted a public forum on Insite and led a workshop on YIMBYism for community activists. In our discussions with the activists we met in Victoria, we explored the idea of an affidavit campaign and the affidavit training. Today's capacity-building workshop was just a beginning step in our work in solidarity with Victoria social activists.
The War for Public Space
Proper and effective distribution of harm reduction services requires outreach workers being able to go to those areas of the city that are most frequented by drug users. Setting up "no-go zones" for harm reduction delivery right in the concentration of drug users - as Victoria has done - is bad health policy and bad social policy. If you want - as opponents to harm reduction claim they do - to get drug users on treatment, the best way to do this is to engage with them in the exchange of health services, as Insite has done. But, there's even a broader issue in Victoria, with members of the street community being stigmatized, ostracized, and prohibited from spending time in parts of the city that others freely do. They are harassed by police who profile them by their appearance, and threatened with arrest for standing on certain sidewalks and smoking a cigarette.
On my last trip to Victoria in May, I was intriqued by the signs in some store windows stating that the space was "Private Property" and that camping, trespassing, loitering, and soliciting on the space in front of the business was prohibited. I took some shots of signs then, and continued today as I was walking through the neighbourhoods and visited Victoria's drug user group, SOLID. The signs note that police can "enforce and arrest in accordance with" sections of the BC Trespass Act. They are particularly noticible in those parts of Victoria where drug users and other marginalized people spend time. Unsurprisingly, there was even one in the window of the Justice Institute of British Columbia, "Canada's Leading Public Safety Educator". My photography of this particular sign was met with uneasy glares by the people on the other side of the glass ("how dare he???").
But, for every reaction, there's an opposite reaction. In response to these signs, Victoria activists made signs of their own for welcoming businesses to hang. Instead of prohibitions and threats, these signs state simply "We provide for our community: Compassion, Respect, Equality, and Dignity in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."
I like to believe that if most residents in Victoria were asked whether they wanted to live in a welcoming and friendly community, or one that excludes and threatens the most vulnerable residents, they would opt for the former. I'm hopeful that over time more of these people will fight back against the public space bullies.
In the end, as the harm reduction activists we worked with today know, drug users and other marginalized persons deserve to be treated with respect and to be given access to necessary medical and social services, such as clean needles, housing assistance, advocacy, and supervised injection facilities, and they need to be free from oppressive persecution and targeting by the police. Until that day comes, affidavit campaigns that document the experiences of people and use those experiences to leverage social change will be an important and necessary step in the campaign for rights.