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Vancouver drug reform advocate Tracey Morrison mourned as 'true warrior'

Community left reeling after death of Indigenous harm-reduction activist and president

Tracey Morrison, president of the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society, is seen at the corner of Hastings and Main streets in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in this photo from her Facebook account. She died on Friday.

Supplied/Facebook/Tracey Morrison

Tracey Morrison, president of the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society, is seen at the corner of Hastings and Main streets in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in this photo from her Facebook account. She died on Friday.

A longtime advocate for drug policy reforms in Vancouver is being mourned after her unexpected death on Friday night.

Tracey Morrison was of Anishinabe (Ojibwe) ancestry and a leading voice and president of the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society.

Also involved in Vancouver's leading harm reduction community organization, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), Morrison earned the nickname Tracey the Bannock Lady for her many years selling homemade First Nations fry bread in the Downtown Eastside.

"She’s been a major staple in the community, fighting for the rights of Aboriginal people especially Aboriginal women in drug use," said Laura Shaver, president of the B.C. Association of People on Methadone and a VANDU board member, in a phone interview. "You can’t walk down the street without someone saying something about her.

"I don’t think Tracey realized how many people she affected or how many knew her from her work."

Garth Mullins, who also works with VANDU, said he knew Morrison for years and believed she was in her mid- to late-40s and originally from Winnipeg.

"I worked with Tracey as part of the movement trying to confront the overdose crisis, and bring some dignity and agency to the lives of people who are really marginalized by the drug war," the 24 Hours Vancouver columnist and radio documentarian told Metro in a phone interview. "Tracey would really make the links between colonialism and gentrification and drug policies — but she had a beautiful, tender way of working with everybody in the community.

"She'd always meet you with a hug. It was crushing when I heard Saturday morning — it was like someone threw a cinder block at my gut. There's been shock through the community; walking down the street after, you could just hear the news rippling out and flowing down the street. Everyone knew her, they're just whiplashed by the news."

A Pivot Legal Society lawyer who knew Morrison wrote on Facebook that the community was "completely heartbroken."

"Our community has lost a fierce and courageous leader, warrior, and friend," wrote Katrina Pacey.

In February, Morrison wrote an article about the overdose crisis for The Volcano publication online titled Sad Siren Song, which many of her colleagues in the Downtown Eastside community shared Sunday over social media.

"When I hear the sad song of sirens that ring in my neighbourhood every day," she wrote, "all day I am dreading to hear the story if this person made it or not.

"This emergency crisis on overdoses and the death toll here in this city I love so much is inconceivable, so hard to understand why can’t this problem be solved or helped? Why isn’t what we are doing, working?"

But while some outlets and commentators have blamed the deadly crisis on Vancouver's harm reduction approach to reducing overdose deaths — which includes safe consumption sites, needle exchanges, and opioid maintenance treatments — Morrison held that the blame lay with drug prohibition itself.

"I believe that the War on the Poor has a lot to do about this," she wrote. "The laws need to change … Stop the drug war, stop the war on the poor and … work together and help our people who are the most criminalized, stigmatized, and marginalized."

Mullins said that in addition to mourning Morrison's death — the causes of which haven't yet been determined — there's also fear about the massive toll that the current deadly overdose crisis has taken on the leadership of the harm reduction movement.

This year, according to the B.C. Coroner's Service, at least 640 people died of an illicit drug overdose in the province, or nearly four every day.

"I feel like this isn't going to stop until every one of us is gone," Mullins said. "To stop it, we need to fight. And Tracey was one of the greatest fighters.

"If this was an overdose involved here, then this and all the other thousands of people is the result of bad drug policy more than it is of bad drugs."

Shaver knew Morrison for at least nine years, and traveled to different parts of Canada educating about harm reduction together. She remembered one project both took part in where researchers helped several Downtown Eastside women to document their daily lives hour by hour, from waking to sleeping.

"It was just amazing to see how much she did every day and how powerful she was," Shaver recalled. "It showed us how many things she did for the community … I’m very sad, angry and confused.

"I know she's with her Maker but it’s too early for her to go."

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