photos: Photo courtesy of the Illicit Project.

Dignity through art

Heartbeats: Vancouver performance honours the lives lost in the fentanyl overdose crisis

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When Kelty McKerracher learned that the Downtown Eastside’s Drug Users Resource Centre was going to close last year, she knew she had to do something to ensure that the artistic and cultural work that had started at the centre would live on.

“[The centre] was our central place. Without that, the community has been very scattered,” says McKerracher, an expressive arts therapist. “It’s hard because [the centre] was a home for people, many people who didn't have any other home.”

The centre was a space for residents in the Downtown Eastside to find community, it had a plethora of workshops, a clinic, access to safe needles, it had a theatre room, and was peer run. Grown out of the centre’s spirit of collective and collaborative ownership, McKerracher created Illicit, an artistic project that would bring people together to explore the realities of illicit drug use and draw on multiple art forms. The year-long project is funded by the Canada Council for the Arts.

“I am really grateful, all of us are really grateful for this project. This is one way that we can continue to feel that sense of community with each other,” she says.

Finding meaning through art
After securing funding, McKerracher, Illicit’s managing artistic director and facilitator, put together a cohort of 12 people who had acted as board members, staff and program facilitators at the centre. The group, composed of former and active drug users, sex workers, street survivors, and political actors, has met once a month for the last 10 months.

Together with dramaturge Renae Morriseau and musical director Devon Martin, McKerracher leads the group in their exploration of multiple art forms, including theatre, music composition, and improvisation and movement explorations. She believes in letting art forms shape the meaning of what’s being created, which is why the project’s final performance was open-ended to begin with.

“How can we, in an imaginative way, bring the world of illicit drug use—which to the wider public is a very foreign, very frightening world—how can we bring that and humanize it, play with it, and make it accessible?” she says.

The group also uses the monthly sessions to discuss their experiences with illicit drugs. “Pretty much everyone [in the group] has been affected by recent death, by the closure of [the centre] and by the general chaos of life,” explained Nicolas Crier, one of the project’s co-researchers and a front line responder to the fentanyl overdose crisis.

“We’ve lost so many people, several a day. There’s no grieving time. Illicit is allowing us to honour who we lost and heal as well.”

Dignity, autonomy, and support
According to David Mendes, artistic director of Eastside Puppeteers, one of Illicit’s partners, the recent crisis has highlighted the work that needs to be done to communicate what's happening on the ground. The group hopes their work will help break down stigma around drug users by humanizing them and by exploring the political realities of the war on drugs.

“People who participate in the illicit drug economy are considered second-class citizens, and in so many ways they are denied the basic rights and dignities that are afforded to all citizens,” says Mendes.

“These are human beings. These are people with love in their lives, with work, with a sense of purpose, with community, with a family. They are not expendable. Those are the stories we want to tell.”

Breaking down stigma starts with respecting the agency and rights of individuals. According to the group, the way society views drug use is very paternalistic, stripping away a lot of autonomy from people. This idea ties in with key principles of harm reduction that highlight the need to meet people where they are at and not tell them what to do.

“We believe we are responsible for taking care of ourselves and our community, and we have to show the world how it’s done,” says Crier. “We are already compassionate and willing to accept that harm is going to happen, so we can move right to being helpful and useful to each other.”

In McKerracher’s opinion, the former centre stood for a place that was about enhancing dignity, a place where people who use drugs and who live in poverty can have a beautiful community centre and meaningful work. Illicit is continuing to share that message.

By telling the stories of those involved in the crisis, the project wants to push for policies that focus on access to treatment and decriminalization. “We need to work on the way our society at large sees this issue. We need to recognize that we all have the right to make decisions in our lives about what we need. As a society we should be supportive in that, and not cast individuals aside because of the choices they make,” McKerracher says.

The group will present at the Vancouver Outsider Arts Festival on August 11.

The performance is being funded by the City of Vancouver, through the Community Arts Grant Program.

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