Nothing About Us Without Us

Reflections on Black and Indigenous Community Building and Healing Through a Local Harm Reduction Alliance’s Practise 

By Chloe Cavis-Haie

cw: drugs, racism, anti-blackness, settler-colonialism, mental health, incarceration


This article was developed through my conversation with Sasha Simmons, a member of the Black Indigenous Harm Reduction Alliance (BIHRA). These conversations are happening in our local contexts and expanding in profoundly amazing ways, creating different frameworks to heal from our collective and distinctive struggles. What are we doing to cultivate embodied knowledge?¹ How can we unearth and respond to more shared narratives between Black and Indigenous people?²

“We have to inhabit our history, but we also have to inhabit our dreams.”³— Page Mays

The histories of Black and Indigenous people intertwine countless times throughout the past, present, and future. They form a complex web boasting breathtaking moments of collaboration and shared struggles, but also key areas of complacency through lateral violence and respectability politics.⁴ There are times in our relationships where we decidedly, repeatedly chose to not have each other’s back. Yet our intergenerational traumas are both deeply rooted in the dispossession of our identities, bodies, and land.⁵

White supremacy has worked tirelessly to fray the threads between our communities, erasing our shared pre-colonial narratives so that they may continue to weave their narrative of Terra Nullius⁶ overtop our existence. Our intergenerational traumas are rooted in the dispossession of our identities, bodies, and land. The forced reconfiguration of our identities into monoliths has historically allowed the settler state to dictate the nature of our relationships.

However, Haudenosaunee Clan Mothers and Black trans women sex workers like Marsha P Johnson breathed life into the decolonization that does not ask permission to exist, and that doesn’t search for acceptance within broader settler colonial context. A movement by us, for us— one that is transparent about our needs and doesn’t centre the dreams of the colonizer.

Transformative justice⁷ offers the possibility to bridge our movements—to
develop methods of mutually reinforced accountability. It organizes explicitly under the premise of abolition, refusing to preoccupy itself with reforms in an effort to salvage a state that is dependent on our continued exploitation. Transformative justice provides a place for kinship and collective liberation within decolonization movements. It requires a desire to dream of post-colonial futures and a belief that our pre-colonial realities and shared histories are worth more than we have been told. That we can afford to be vulnerable with each other. That we are “enough.”⁸

BIHRA is a grassroots group in Tio’tia:ke (Montréal) that tackles these notions head on. Their focus is on those in our community who are struggling with the reverberations of multiple intersecting traumas. BIHRA emerged from The Indigenous Women & 2 Spirit Harm Reduction Coalition (IW2SHRC), started five years ago by Lindsay Nixon and Molly Swain. Their goal was to provide harm reduction materials to urban Indigenous people, and build their understanding of what it means to “decolonize harm reduction”. By 2016, the group felt an increasing importance to expand their vision to consider the broader decolonial context by becoming public with their reflections on the shared struggles of Black and Indigenous peoples. Robyn Maynard, a Black feminist writer, activist, and educator joined the group, and they were reborn as BIHRA. Sasha explains:

“It was about building connections between communities. [BIHRA] started from a friendship and we’re now building that connection between newer members of the collective. Using organic relationships that are trusting and go at their own pace, instead of doing some sort of collision course in trust building.”

Turtle Island’s overdose crisis within our communities has been well-documented, but our repeated suggestions of harm reduction approach have been ignored.⁹ Now, more than ever, the celebration of 150 years of settler
colonial violence across “Canada” in the midst of this crisis serves as an
important reminder to pick up those forgotten threads. A call for alternatives. A search for more healing ways of relating to one another. Harm reduction has, and will always be, a method which recognizes how colonization affects our vulnerability and ability to effectively deal with trauma. Harnessing our ancestral knowledge for the future positions decolonial practice in itself.

“Harm reduction is just a way to describe the way that we used to do things already, the we’ve always been doing things. [Harm reduction] comes naturally to us.” —Sasha Simmons

Current white-lead harm reduction initiatives whitewash the racial and radical roots of harm reduction. It erases our histories with addiction and abuse, and refuses to recognize ancestral knowledge as integral to the practice. It reconstructs the practice through the erasure of their complicity in addiction and abuse.

“Putting hard rules in, criminalization, prison, these were systems brought in with colonialism. Harm reduction combats these systems by encouraging us to see individuals where they’re at, to both have goals of things that you would like to be better and to have the clarity to realize that something isn’t supporting you,” says Sasha.

Racialized prisoners incarcerated for drug related incidents are left behind as legalization takes place. The colonizer’s implementation of harm reduction picks and chooses which communities it will approach with compassion. Harm reduction and trust in ourselves must go hand-in-hand. Born from strategies of resilience and our ancestral knowledge, think of it as an exercise in self-determination. Once we cease our preoccupation with validation from the colonial structure, we gain the ability to centre ourselves, past, present, and future, in our own healing.

BIHRA embodies this wisdom through their Connect Prison Project, a joint initiative with AIDS Community Care Montreal (ACCM). The 8-part conversational workshop series tackles a wide range of topics from sexual wellness to self acceptance. The project was launched after the recent move of detainees from Tanguay prison in Tioh’tià:ke (Montréal) to the Leclerc provincial prison in “Laval.” This has isolated prisoners and severed access to their established networks of support. Incarcerated Black and Indigenous LGBTQ2S+ are especially invisibilized,¹⁰ their needs stifled by the Prison Industrial Complex. BIHRA and ACCM facilitate community building around the voices of these very same people. While our situations may be unique, valuable insight can be gained through collaborative discussion and the affirmation of our identities.

“The guidance to find the answers within yourself. Getting back to the place where we can trust ourselves and have a community that supports us in that rather than giving the answers.
That’s the attitude about the project that we do. Usually we’re alone with them, without the staff… so what we try to have is an environment where we value their [self] knowledge and we are going to have conversations about strategies that we all use to reduce the risks.” — Sasha Simmons

By prioritizing conversations that explicitly engage and examine the complicated relationships between Black and Indigenous people on Turtle Island, we can plant the seeds of self-directed decolonization and liberation. BIHRA offers a safe space to build futures, both inwards and out.

The work of decolonization will be done in different ways, with different medicines. To open the mind to the possibility of healing is to halt the unraveling of ourselves. We will continue to mend the threads of kinship, resistance, and self-determination.

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1. Adele Thomas, “Stolen people on stolen land: decolonizing while Black”, Racebaitr, 2016.
2. See: Kyle T. Mays, “From Flint to Standing Rock: The Aligned Struggles of Black and Indigenous People”, Culanth, 2016. Keedra Gibba, “Stolen People
On Stolen Land: Standing Rock and Black Liberation”, Truthout, 2016.
3. Kelly Hayes member of Assata’s Daughters and BLM Chicago, “Our History and Our Dreams: Building Black and Native Solidarity”, Truthout, 2015.
4. Aaron Goggins, “Black Solidarity With First Nations Is Complicated, Sacred and Necessary”, The Root, 2016.
5. Chukwubuikem Nnebe, “A Discourse on Race: Anti-Blackness and Its Transatlantic Roots”, McGill Daily, 2015. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Indict the System: Indigenous & Black Resistance, Briarpatch, 2014
6. Latin for “nobody’s land,” manifest destiny
7. Also known as “healing justice”. An intersectional, community based practice of healing and transformation from trauma and structural violence.
8. Rachel Zellars and Naava Smolash, “If Black Women Were Free: Part 2. Practicing Transformative Justice in–and Beyond–Black Communities”, Briarpatch 2016.
9. Ciann Larose Wilson, Sarah Flicker, Jean-Paul Restoule & Ellis Furman, “Narratives of Resistance: (Re) Telling the Story of the HIV/ AIDS Movement – Because the Lives and Legacies of Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour Communities Depend on It”, Health Tomorrow Vol.4, 2016.
10. Molly Billows, “A Two-Spirit Response to Carimah Townes: “Trans Women of Color are Missing From the Conversation About Transphobia” and Thoughts On Black-Indigenous Solidarity,” 2016.