Another Harm Reduction Perspective: An Interview with Walter Cavalieri from the Canadian Harm Reduction Network

The Canadian Harm Reduction Network is a virtual meeting place for individuals and organizations committed to reducing the social, health and economic harms associated with drugs and drug policies. The network was established in 1999 by a group of activists committed to improving the lives of people struggling with drug use, and Walter Cavalieri is the director of the organization.

The Canadian Harm Reduction Network is a virtual meeting place for people to exchange ideas and information. The network has been engaged in recent research, presentations and the media. Essentially the Canadian Harm Reduction Network wants to change the world to make it better, kinder, and a more evidence-based place.

The Canadian Harm Reduction Network has a Facebook page and a Twitter account. The Canadian Harm Reduction Network has also taken part in media studies looking at what harm reduction looks like internationally, rather than only what it looks like in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal.

Walter Cavalieri

Walter worked in professional and academic theatre for over 20 years. However, he eventually began to become more in touch with his pursuit to improve individuals’ lives and make the world a better place. Therefore, he began to volunteer at the LGBTTQA counseling centre at the time and his work with the counseling centre became more interesting than any area of theatre work that he engaged in. Walter then went back to school and obtained his Bachelor of Social Work degree and resided in Toronto. During his initial involvement in Toronto, he began to work with children living on the street, that were surviving through drug use.

His initial response to children using drugs was telling them to stop using drugs; however, he began to explore alternatives to this view on drug use. He began to work with the children and discovered the drugs were often used as a coping mechanism for trauma. Walter also began to work with adults and opportunities for a needle exchange were established. He then attended a harm reduction conference in Toronto and realized that harm reduction should be very important in reducing the harm of drug use in Toronto. Thus, Walter helped to establish the Canadian Harm Reduction Network in 1999.

SWH: What does harm reduction mean to you?

Harm reduction means very simply “ending suffering and saving lives”, which is a slogan from Chicago Recovery Alliance. Therefore, whatever harm reduction does, it helps individuals who may be engaging in harmful behaviour move forward and make small incremental changes and improvements in their lives. The client is considered to be the expert and the service provider learns just as much from the client as the client learns from the service provider in order to facilitate less harm in the client’s life.

SWH: How easy is it to get funding for research in harm reduction?

Funding for drug research is very hard to come by. Harm reduction has a very close relationship with AIDS, but drug research needs to be expanded. Much of the funding comes from pharmaceutical companies, as those companies are often interested in drug research. However, it is very difficult to get funding for the health of people on the street or the harm that is coming from injecting. It is also difficult to obtain funding for this research because the government is not interested in harm reduction’s effects on drug use. The government does not like people who take drugs because it isn’t fashionable and does not play to their base.

SWH: Why are harm reduction approaches so controversial?

Harm reduction is done naturally to protect society, children, loved ones, families and communities. For example, children are taught to look both ways before crossing the street. Harm reduction is very intuitive, but keeps humanity’s best interest at heart. The stigma against people who use illicit or licit drugs (ie. prescription or over-the-counter medication) is huge and it’s fostered in official propaganda. Drugs are a dangerous substance to use badly. Instead of raising awareness and educating people to reduce the harm of drug use, the world is trying to induce fear on drug users and potential drug users. However, fear doesn’t always work.

SWH: What is the difference between a harm reduction based program and a 12-step program?

Harm reduction is more than individual treatment. As Dr. Gabor Mate would say, ‘everyone who is addicted to drugs has a history of early trauma’, then we need to address early trauma. However, individuals who have been experiencing life on the street for two to three years are continually being re-traumatized on the street. Many people who live on the street for many years have a limited chance of leading a drug free life because the drugs work for them in hiding the physical and emotional pain and trauma that they must cope with in their lives. What right do we have to say to a person that they cannot take away a painkiller and leave them to suffer, we are not sure that we have that right.

There are many ethical dilemmas in working with people who are struggling with drug and alcohol use that are insoluble. Thus, harm reduction is different than an abstinence-based or 12-step program because there is not one way to reduce harm (ie. remaining abstinent) but many ways. Harm reduction is very much based on an individual’s needs, temperament and goals; therefore, it can include abstinence; however, abstinence does not work for everyone. Harm reduction may not witness the solution as quick; however, the solution will most likely become apparent over time. However, since substances are illegal, it is very difficult to receive support for harm reduction practices. Thus, it is much easier to gain support for moderation management with alcohol and/ or cocaine.

SWH: What stage is Canada at for receiving government support for harm reduction?

The federal government still opposes harm reduction. However, on a province-to-province basis, there is some hope. However, funding is always difficult even for the provinces, but at least the provinces are discussing and brainstorming ideas regarding how harm reduction can be implemented. However, it has become increasingly more difficult to get support for harm reduction at the provincial level as grant funding for harm reduction has become more difficult to acquire. Many organizations have relied on city grants to fund harm reduction outreach programs, which is an integral aspect of harm reduction.

SWH: Do you think Canada is further ahead than the United States in harm reduction?

Canada is ahead of the United States in terms of harm reduction; however, Canada should be much further ahead than it appears to be. If you take a close look at harm reduction in the United States, there are at least 17 states that have Good Samaritan laws. Therefore, in some ways Canada is further behind the United States. Canada has led needle exchange programs and crack kit distribution; however, these programs and resources need to be further administered in both Canada and the United States. In addition, the United States has very solid activist groups that are dedicated to making a difference and advocating for harm reduction, which do not exist in Canada.

For more information please visit the Canadian Harm Reduction Network’s website at .

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Megan Ferguson

Megan Ferguson is the Ageing and Gerontology Staff Writer. She is a BSW student at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, MB. Megan is currently pursuing a specialization in aging and is interested in working in the field of geriatrics, addiction or mental health. View all posts by Megan Ferguson

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