Talking Circles used for healing and HIV research in Downtown Eastside

published on April 1, 2015 in Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies

A peer-led community-based research project in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, supported by the Wall Solutions Initiative, is working to address the health needs of Aboriginal people who use illicit alcohol and drugs.

A 2013 report by the British Columbia Ministry of Health indicates that Aboriginal people, who represent three per cent of the overall Canadian population, are far overrepresented in the number of people living with HIV/AIDS, making up almost eight per cent. This disparity has been attributed to a multitude of factors including the impacts of colonialism, poverty, lack of education and access to adequate healthcare and housing.  However, traditional researchers have struggled to identify effective solutions that can help address this disparity.

“We’ve been researched to death here on the Downtown Eastside,” says Tracey Morrison, President of the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society (WAHRS). WAHRS is an organization of Aboriginal users of illicit alcohol and/or drugs that has led the community-based research. “Researchers come in and ask us who we are and about the ‘informal consent’ about HIV [tests] and about all sorts of things – smoking crack, injections. We get researched so much by people coming in that we just tell them what they want to hear.”

Despite the fact that the Downtown Eastside is a hub for social outreach and health research, the data brought in by studies over the years wasn’t always matching up to what was actually happening in the community.

“There was something about the way we were administering research in the traditional ways, like surveys, that wasn’t really getting to the heart of the problem. In some ways the information we were getting from Aboriginal people almost didn’t make sense,” explains Dr. Thomas Kerr, Associate Professor in UBC’s Department of Medicine and Co-Director of the Urban Health Research Initiative at the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS.

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