Ukraine 7: Camping

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Ukraine 6: Machina


Ukraine 5: Spaces

Ukraine 4: Food

Advocating for Alcohol Harm Reduction Policy in Regina, Saskatchewan, Round 2

To read a literature review on the topic of Managed Alcohol Programs, you can click the link below. The literature review was done by lead author Erin Nielsen and co-authored by Gabriela Novotna, Rochelle Berenyi, and myself.

To read CBC Saskatchewan’s coverage on it, you can click here.

 

Poem for the Camp

Three flags whip and crack 

over the Ledge like Canada Day celebrations 

or hangfire warning shots

 

It’s Deano’s 52nd 

we go to McDonalds after an hour 

deliberating where he wouldn’t get kicked out, if alone. We talk 

about Willie Nelson. He eats a BigMac, 

I finish his fries.

 

I used to come to the Ledge to rev the engine at rabbits 

padding along the asphalt

at cyclists

at things I didn’t really get

 

Deano and I talk 

about finding bikes in dumpsters. Later, alone, 

I stop at a grocery store alley

find an unopened pizza and wonder 

which of these dumpsters he might’ve been sleeping in 

the moment the trash was picked up

and the compactor closed.

 

One time with a girl

through a crack in the stairs 

I saw someone move in the Legislative basement 

like a dungeon 

keeper of secrets I had yet to learn

bigger than a limestone building

 

I sit in the cold, consider

what it would feel like to have my body valued 

like expired frozen pizza

or my blood used 

to restore the big copper dome. 

 

Toes and head numb, I add more wood to the illegal sacred fire 

and think about Willie Nelson.

 

-Regina SK, March 16, 2018

(Justice for Our Stolen Children Camp, Treaty 4)

This poem was first published in Tour Book #2.

 

The Payphone

The following excerpt is from the story The Payphone, first published online at Lunch Ticket, and now available as an audiobook and in print at BallsOfRice.Bandcamp.com. Artwork by Alex Murray.

 

A man wearing a navy paisley bandana and wire-frame glasses pedaled his bike to the corner, stepped over his seat, and coasted on one foot to the bike rack at the side of the liquor store. He slotted his front wheel in the rack, strode four steps over to the unsheltered public payphone, lifted the handset, inserted a quarter, dialed the number to his daughter on the east end of town, and waited. He needed to call her Tuesday, today, to see if his cheque had arrived. His watch said 4:42 p.m.

No dial tone started, nothing, until he heard an automated woman’s voice say in her cold, impersonal way, “Credit twenty-five cents. Please deposit twenty-five cents.”

The man forgot that the phone company raised the price by one-hundred percent, to fifty cents. He patted his pants pockets, checked his jacket, checked the sidewalk, even checked the pouch attached to his bicycle, and couldn’t find a quarter. He couldn’t find two dimes and a nickel. He couldn’t find anything. There was no one around for several blocks to ask for change.

“Fuck sakes!” the man cursed. He slammed the phone against the liquor store’s brick wall, breaking the earpiece off. He dropped the receiver and biked away.

Finish the story at Lunch Ticket.

“Lester’s Book” Release Party

 

I haven’t written through the Balls of Rice channel very much in the past two years as I’ve been working on other writing projects. These projects have included some of those listed under the Books and Audiobooks tabs of BallsofRice.com, smaller articles and book reviews, and more. If you’re able or interested, please come out to the “Lester’s Book” Release Party on June 4, or order a book from ballsofrice.bandcamp.com to see what I’ve been up to. I feel confident that this is some of my best work to date.

Thanks for checking in.

Facebook event here.

[Art by Alex Murray (atmmurray[at]gmail.com)]

Fighting For Space

The following book review of Travis Lupick‘s book Fighting For Space first appeared in Briarpatch Magazine‘s Prairie Edition, and online.

In 2002, a group of residents and advocates met at the intersection of Main and Hastings in Vancouver holding a 100-foot-long hypodermic needle made out of a giant cardboard tube, stopping traffic. They were protesting the forced closing of a needle exchange on the corner of Main and Hastings in the Downtown Eastside. Earlier, in 2001, front-line workers had distributed clean needles in a trailer outfitted with washrooms, and ensured those using in bathroom stalls didn’t overdose. Affectionately known as “the Thunder Box,” the trailer became one of North America’s first unsanctioned supervised injection sites.

These stories are among countless actions detailed in Travis Lupick’s Fighting for Space, which tells of the struggle that led to the implementation of Canada’s first official safe-injection site in Vancouver in 2003. The history of the harm reduction movement is one of direct action and protest – an “act first, ask second” attitude that was the only reasonable response to an outbreak of preventable disease and a crisis of premature deaths. Lupick focuses on the Portland Hotel Society (PHS), the groundbreaking housing non-profit that offered low-barrier housing to the city’s most vulnerable, and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), the advocacy group that pushed for accessible health care and decriminalization of drug use. The two worked in tandem, with VANDU often willingly taking the heat for direct actions to protect the more diplomatic and funding-restricted Portland Hotel Society.

The history of the harm reduction movement is one of direct action and protest – an “act first, ask second” attitude.

The 1990s saw a dramatic spike in overdose deaths and high rates of HIV diagnoses in Vancouver – not unlike the current fentanyl crisis playing out across Canada. But this time the human cost is much higher, with 2017 being the deadliest year on record for overdose deaths in B.C. The strategies used by advocates on the West Coast, honed over decades of persistent work, can provide guidance for similar struggles being newly waged in neighbouring Prairie provinces like Saskatchewan, where fentanyl has killed over 40 people since 2015.

While revealing the staggering numbers of diagnoses and deaths is key to understanding the scope of the problem, it is the stories of the people who’ve lived through the harm reduction movement that makes this history real. By telling the accounts of people struggling for dignity against politicians and a public determined to dehumanize them, Lupick reinforces two basic claims of the harm reduction movement: people who use drugs are human, and all people deserve safety and health.

In one of their first organized meetings, members of the newly formed VANDU agreed that they wanted somewhere safe and healthy to spend time, a space that was free of police harassment. The Portland Hotel Society’s first residence was known as the “Hotel of Last Resort.” Simplifying their message to one of “health and safety” – one that politicians and the public couldn’t reasonably reject – has grounded all of their actions and successes in the harm reduction movement. Lupick concludes the book with an epilogue about a family — Mary, Molly, and Mikel — in a quietly triumphant story of three generations living in the Portland Hotel Society, all experiencing stability in their health and housing.

Lupick reinforces two basic claims of the harm reduction movement: people who use drugs are human, and all people deserve safety and health.

Lupick does not deify Vancouver’s advocates or their process – rather, he shows them to be people offering the simple necessities of safety and support, while working toward inclusive public health policy. He demonstrates a proven way to effectively build low-barrier health care and housing systems: through persistent action coupled with advocacy, and building partnerships with sympathetic policy-makers. Without this infrastructure, the number of overdose deaths in B.C. last year would have been much higher.

The current situation on the Prairies is nearly as dire as the one Vancouver faced in the 1990s. Saskatchewan’s HIVAIDS rates are the highest in the country, and with 79 per cent of the people newly diagnosed as HIV-positive self-identifying as Indigenous, programming must prioritize consultation with Indigenous communities. Meanwhile, harm reduction programs have been heavily stigmatized by a predominantly conservative public and openly scrutinized by political leaders. In 2009, former premier Brad Wall said his government would limit the number of clean needles handed out, despite a Saskatchewan Ministry of Health report proving the success of needle exchange programs. In 2017, The Sask. Party threatened community based organizations with a 10 per cent funding cut that would hit operations deemed not to be “core services,” like needle exchanges. Though the party eventually opted against the funding cut, when harm reduction programs are routinely among the first to be threatened, the work being done by those of the front lines is delegitimized and destabilized.

When harm reduction programs are routinely among the first to be threatened, the work being done by those of the front lines is delegitimized and destabilized.

For years, doctors, front-line workers, and advocates in Saskatchewan have been pushing for the province to declare a state of emergency regarding rising HIV rates. But if we continue to wait for a provincial government to take necessary action – especially as two newly elected party leaders wade in slowly, in a province where the health of First Nations people is systematically neglected — it may never happen. Prairie activists and front-line workers struggling through those bureaucracies must instead act upon their values and conscience to build systems of equitable health care and human services, regardless of whether they have been granted permission by the state.

Nicholas Olson is the author of A Love Hat Relationship, a photobook of collectable prairie hats; and a series of illustrated zines with accompanying audiobook narrations. More can be found at ballsofrice.com. He lives in Treaty 4 Territory.

 

I wasn’t shot dead in the CN Railyard.

Originally posted December 2015. Updated Feb 9, 2018.

We sat bored as hell in the dormitory of our Christian high school. Tired of lighting carpet on fire, bored of fist fighting with hockey helmets and gloves in a boy-battle named Cage Rage, weary of quietly playing Nintendo with girls we’d never marry. The week before, a boy had chased a rabbit onto the highway, it got flattened and brought back as a trophy kill. He wanted more blood. We gathered in his dorm room–the home of one of those kids who grew up killing things for fun, the kind of kid who hides a compound bow under his bed–and slipped on camouflage jackets and gloves, orange toques and Santa hats, grabbed the CO2 powered pellet gun built like a rifle, and headed to the train tracks to shoot pigeons. Ten years ago this past December.

We walked through campus with an uncovered rifle, walked across an empty field, past several blocks of homes, down an alley, four of the dumbest and most innocent church kids there ever were, excited to rid God’s green earth of some of its other dumbest animals. We crossed a hill, maybe hopped a fence, and entered the railyard. We searched for any living thing; rabbits were hiding, squirrels were sleeping, but there were the pigeons, cooing from on high. I raised the gun to my shoulder, aimed to the top of the billboard where they glowed iridescent in the cold grey sky. First shot was low, hit the billboard, an ad for cell phones. Second shot was high, the pellet likely raining down on a passing-by car. Third shot was never taken, we heard a car crawl over the hill near the tracks. Flashing lights on top. Myself and the kid wearing the Santa hat took to run, but were stopped by our more experienced gunmen. Another cop car pulled up from around the gravel access road. From behind us came two cops on foot being pulled by pursuing German Shepherds.

I wasn’t shot dead in the CN Railyard. Ten years later, my mother does not mourn my death.

Tamir Rice, 12-year-old kid in Cleveland, Ohio, “whose size made him look much older,” approximately the size of a 17-year-old grade 12 student from a Christian school, was shot dead in his park. A year later, his mother mourns his death and the fact that greater society, the courts included, does not see it as a pervasive problem. Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old kid in smalltown Saskatchewan is shot in the head and the man who admitted he shot him in the head is acquitted.

* * *

At one of the two Christmas events I couldn’t avoid, politics came up. I was bureaucratically sorting my RACK-O cards from least to greatest, listening to peoples’ justified disbelief at a gun culture that allows people to be regularly shot down in the streets. Not a mention, save for the flight delay caused by Black Lives Matter protests at an airport, of racial inequalities, radicalization caused by the perpetual war state, the cutting of social programs. Polite Canadians can righteously shake their heads at their southern neighbours about their affinity for deadly weapons, but don’t bother condemning their southern neighbours for racial oppression because they can’t—-both places are equally as guilty and purposefully ignorant.

Without first hand experience, it may be impossible for those with privilege to fully understand systemic oppression. Systemic, meaning, deeper, more complex, often unnoticeable, traditional ways in which our society and our personal actions, whether we know it or not, play into oppressing a group of people. Systemic, meaning, racism based in systems such as policing, the courts, social services, healthcare that create a culture in which the general populace, who may have nothing to do with these systems themselves, still perpetuate racism through their own action or inaction. To even gain a glimpse of this oppression is done only by building relationship with the person who suffers from its crushing weight, learning about them, until you can clearly say that common understanding and camaraderie is shared.

The shooting of a Black pre-teen in the midwest, the death of Eric Garner at the hands of police, the Starlight Tours given to Neil Stonechild twenty years ago in Saskatoon, the murder of Colten Boushie, are the culmination, the physical representation, of the systemic racism suffered by people of colour in North America. They are not “perfect storm[s] of human error” or “freak accident[s]” or individual incidents. They are tied so closely together and so closely to the fabric of our colonial society. It is not simply the lack of gun control, but the lack of gun control that rests upon a bed of racism and colonialism. Not just a few bad police officers, bad apples, dealing with a few ‘problematic’ people, but rather a few bad police officers trained and conditioned by the organization meant to uphold the power of the privileged at the expense of the rights of Aboriginal peoples. Systemic.

Until the privileged come to understand that these attacks that seem (to the unoppressed) isolated and separate, are actually the continuation of a plan of assimilation and extermination that has existed since the inception of the settler state, innocent people will continue to be shot by police officers. And for people to truly come to understand how broad and sweeping the system is, how it permeates the lives of both privileged and oppressed, they will need to learn to grow in community with someone who might not even be aware of all the ways they are being slighted by society. Because before a person can have the will to create change, before they even understand why change is necessary, relationship must be nurtured.

* * *

We were told to put the gun on the ground and our hands in the air as the police officer had his hand on his right hip. I shouted that it was just a pellet gun; he repeated his demand. I placed the gun in the snow and we followed the officer’s orders, slowly approaching single file with our hands in the air.

Our only punishment was standing out in the cold for fifteen minutes with our hands exposed, turning red from winter’s bite. No parents were called. No dorm moms were informed. No one was shot. They even let us take the gun home.

The “perfect storm of human error” didn’t happen, in my case, for specific reasons. But “the perfect storm of gun-mania and systemic racism” did happen in the case of Tamir Rice, and Colten Boushie. Admitting our faults as a great racist continent isn’t easy, but neither is watching your unarmed son get shot.

 

Also read Beyond Bad Apples at Changing Suns Press.