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Arts & Culture

The Rise of Nunatsiavut Art

After decades of being perceived as “inauthentic,” it’s time for Labrador Inuit artists to receive the recognition they deserve

For countless generations, we Labrador Inuit have belonged to a vast coastal region of the Arctic and Subarctic along the Atlantic Ocean, now recognized as Nunatsiavut. For millennia, our ancestors have produced skillfully made, useful, meaningful things essential to our continued existence on this land. Over the last four centuries, as contact with the outside world increased, we also produced clothing, carvings, and other artwork for trade with the Europeans who visited our coast. Through these exchanges, Labrador Inuit objects made in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries can be found in museum collections worldwide. Yet in publications on modern Canadian Inuit art, Labrador Inuit artists and craftspeople are almost completely absent. Four living generations of artists have witnessed a dramatic time of transition on the Labrador coast. Their stories, memories, and knowledge, passed down through the generations of Inuit in our region, are little known outside of Nunatsiavut.

SakKijâjuk—meaning “to be visible” in the Labrador dialect of Inuktitut—presents a critical opportunity to introduce Nunatsiavummiut artists and craftspeople to the world. Through the work of four generations of artists—Elders, Trailblazers, Fire Keepers, and the Next Generation—this exhibition reveals the vital yet long-hidden art history of Nunatsiavut, highlighting the enduring resilience of our artists.

The artistry of the Labrador Inuit is evident throughout the entire historical record of the region, including the many centuries before European contact; contemporary visual arts are rooted in this rich and complex history. Unlike most other Inuit peoples who were geographically isolated until the early twentieth century, the Labrador Inuit have experienced more than four hundred years of prolonged contact with Kallunât. Whalers, fishermen, explorers, Moravian missionaries, and a succession of French and British colonialists exposed them to periods of exploitation, evangelization, colonization, and confederation. More recently, Inuit have begun to find their way out of that past, beginning with the Inuit political activism of the 1970s and leading to the realization of self-governance in 2005.

Yet while encounters between non-Inuit and Nunatsiavummiut have been well documented for over four centuries, and a number of excellent studies have been published from the related fields of archeology, anthropology, and ethnohistory, art historical literature is scant. Scholarly publications, museum collections, and exhibitions of Inuit art and visual culture have been noticeably devoid of Nunatsiavut content. Likewise, most seminal texts on Inuit art ignore Labrador completely, and only a handful of journal articles and catalogue essays deal with Nunatsiavummiut art in any depth or breadth.

Somewhat ironically, the main factor that led to the exclusion of Labrador Inuit art from the canon of Inuit and Canadian art history had little to do with the arts. In 1949—the same year that modern Inuit art exploded onto the international art scene, following a famously sold-out show at the Canadian Handicrafts Guild in Montreal—Newfoundland joined Confederation, but the new province’s government refused to submit to federal jurisdiction over its Aboriginal peoples. Elsewhere across Canada, the existing Indian Act and other legislation made the federal government financially responsible for the delivery of health, education, and other social services to the Aboriginal population. Yet when Newfoundland joined Canada, the two governments could not reach an agreement on who would be responsible for the Indian and Inuit populations. Instead, both Newfoundland and Canada decided against extending any federal considerations to the new province’s Inuit, NunatuKavut, Mi’kmaw, or the Innu Nation, in contrast to the rest of the country. The final version of the Terms of Union did not even mention Aboriginal peoples, and no provisions were made that would compel the Canadian government to accept full responsibility for the provision of social services to Newfoundland and Labrador’s Aboriginal peoples, as it did in the other provinces and territories across the country.

This political decision had the unintended effect of making Labrador Inuit artists ineligible to participate in any of the developments that emerged from the federally funded Inuit art initiatives advanced throughout what is now Nunavut and Nunavik. Since 1949, contemporary Inuit art has grown into a rich, varied practice and a respected field of study, as well as a multimillion-dollar industry; however, Labrador Inuit artists have remained nearly invisible within this history. While a handful of artists have found critical and commercial success on their own in recent decades, the understanding and recognition of Labrador Inuit art as a whole is still deeply lacking. In light of the dramatic advances in the field of Canadian Inuit art over half a century, the near-complete absence of Nunatsiavummiut visual culture from exhibitions and collections, as well as from art historical texts, is highly conspicuous.

Nunatsiavummiut have been considered less “authentic” than other Inuit, who lived in remote Arctic communities with little contact with the outside world. On the coast, our ancestors were not isolated from European settlers, traders, and travellers. They had contact with the Norse, Basque, Dutch, Spanish, Greenlandic, French, and English, who visited the coast as whalers, explorers, missionaries, trappers, traders, and government representatives. Instead of viewing our centuries-old history of contact, resistance, and exchange as a fascinating subject worthy of study, most Inuit art historians of the twentieth century have dismissed Labrador Inuit as too acculturated. The fact that many had converted to the Moravian faith contributed to this belief, although by the beginning of the modern Inuit art movement, Inuit peoples across the Canadian Arctic had been converted to Christianity. From the 1960s through the 1980s the commonly held belief was that Labrador Inuit had long been wholly assimilated into Kallunât culture, if they were thought of at all.

For Labradorimiut artists who wished to be given the same attention and respect as their peers across the Arctic, the perception of a separation between “authentic” Inuit in the 1950s Northwest Territories (as they were imagined) and the “inauthentic” Inuit of Labrador in the same time period has been an almost insurmountable barrier to success. When the Canadian and Newfoundland governments decided not to recognize the Indigenous peoples of the province, this lack of inclusion and federal recognition led many to believe there were no “real” Inuit in Labrador at all, and without funding to travel or communicate with the rest of the country, it was impossible for Labradorimiut to contradict this belief.

It wasn’t until the late 1980s that the first exploratory meetings between Labrador Inuit and staff from the federal government’s Inuit Art Section took place. During these meetings, for which curator Ingo Hessel travelled to Labrador, the Inuit Art Section offered to sponsor a survey of Labrador Inuit artists, and to this end they hired artist and then Ottawa-based university student Dinah Andersen to travel to each Inuit community along the Labrador coast and interview Inuit artists and craftspeople. Andersen completed approximately 140 interviews with artists and craftspeople who self-identified as Inuit during this trip, making this the first attempt to survey Inuit art in Labrador. The survey revealed that while our artistic traditions continued to thrive under the guidance of our elders and local artists, the major problem facing most Labrador Inuit artists was low earning levels resulting, in part, from a limited market. The survey also revealed shortages of art materials and adequate facilities in which artists could work. For example, houses on the coast tended to be (and still are) too small to allow indoor carving space, and many lacked running water, so carving could only be done outside in warmer months. As Dinah Andersen stated at the time, “For a young person interested in pursuing the arts on their own, it is next to impossible, not to mention discouraging.” Maria Muehlen, the head of the Inuit Art Section for the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs at the time, confirmed in Inuit Art Quarterly, “It is evident that artists in Labrador have not received a fraction of the attention given to NWT and Quebec artists, and the Inuit Art Section is eager to rectify this imbalance.”

Compounding this difficult situation, Inuit artists and craftspeople in Labrador were not allowed to use the “igloo tag” to authenticate their works as “real” Inuit art until 1990. Upon finally being granted this privilege, sculptor Gilbert Hay, who had been artistically and politically active in his community since the 1970s, remarked dryly, “After twenty years of struggling on my own to make it as an artist, the Government of Canada finally recognizes me as a genuine Inuk artist.”

Photography by Ned Pratt
Derrick Pottle. Kayak Hunter, 2015, ivory, marble, steatite, talc, wood, antler, rabbit fur. 22.9 x 81.3 x 38.1 cm. Collection of the artist. Photograph by Ned Pratt
Photography by Ned Pratt
Shirley Moorhouse. Pure Energy (detail, 2000), mixed media. 175.8 x 145.2 cm. Collection of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada. Photograph courtsey of Indigenous and Norther Affairs Canada
Photography by Ned Pratt
Susannah Igloliorte. Inukuluk Jacket, 1966. Embroidery, thread, duffel. 61 x 71.1 x 35.6 cm. Collection of Donald and Miriam Lyall. Photograph by Ned Pratt
Photography by Ned Pratt
Doris Saunders. Northern Lights, 1996. Embroidery. 8.3 x 15.2 cm. The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery, Memorial University Collection. Photograph by Ned Pratt
Photography by Ned Pratt
Heather Campbell. 7th Generation Inuit Community, 2015. Pen, ink, litho crayon, and pencil crayon on Mylar. 58.4 x 44.5 cm. Collection of the artist. Photograph by Ned Pratt
Photography by Ned Pratt
Jane Shiwak, Inuit Couple, 2015. Sealskin clothing, felt, yarn, fabric, wood, rabbit fur, beads. 34.3 x 30.5 x 10.2 cm. Collection of the Nunatsiavut Government.Photograph by Ned Pratt
Photography by Ned Pratt
Sarah Baikie. Basket, ca. 2003. Grass, embroidery thread, caribou antler. 15.2 x 15.2 x 15.2 cm. Collection of Roberta Baikie-Andersen. Photograph by Ned Pratt
Photography by Ned Pratt
Mark Igloliorte. Work (Kayait series), 2008. Oil on Plexiglas. 90.2 x 100.3 cm. Private collection. Photograph by Ned Pratt
Photography by Ned Pratt
Michael Massie. Grandfather I Have Something to Tell You, 2004. Anhydrite, bone, bird’s-eye maple, mahogany, ebony. 43.8 x 24.1 x 30.5 cm. The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery Collection. Photograph by Ned Pratt

Excerpted from SakKijâjuk: Art and Craft from Nunatsiavut by Heather Igloliorte. Copyright © 2017 by Goose Lane Editions and The Rooms Corporation of Newfoundland and Labrador. Reprinted by permission of Goose Lane Editions.

Heather Igloliorte is an assistant professor of Aboriginal art history at Concordia University.

Arts & Culture

Trump's Typo Problem: Human Error, or Willful Ignorance?

The number of mistakes signals that important people don’t know what they’re doing—and couldn’t care less

Word Nerd

I’m not usually amused or appalled by typos. When I come across something along the lines of “An event for the offspring of mixed-race families shits a chord” (Toronto Star, January 3), I don’t wince or chortle smugly or become avidly judgmental or assume that the piece was never vetted by a copy editor. Mostly, when I see a “selling public asses” or “selling pubic assets,” I just feel an overwhelming sense of dread—because there but for the grace of sufficient time, and sleep, and proofreading support go I.

I am generally sound. I catch many things. I am familiar with a large number of grammatical rules and errors. Yet just last week, I managed to read a paragraph with “garbage dumb” in it and not recognize that there was something amiss. There were extenuating circumstances, of course: I was scanning the text very quickly; I was focusing on the words around that one, because I had questions about other parts of the sentence; I had read roughly 85,000 other words that same day. Luckily for me, a co-worker spotted it, and I was saved: no Walrus reader would have occasion to say, “What kind of people are they hiring over there? Garbage dumb people, apparently.”

As much as I remind myself that certain circumstances can be considered extenuating, though, I would prefer never to make or miss errors of any kind—and I’ve worried that the very fact that certain mistakes have escaped me means that I lack true copy-editing smarts. How many mistakes is it normal to miss? How many blunders can one fail to spot before one should seriously start considering searching for a job that does not require spotting blunders?

I had assumed these were rhetorical questions, ones related to obscure and complex issues of human fallibility and self-image. But when I typed “copy-editing error rates” into Google, the internet provided me with a surprisingly solid and reassuring answer: 5 percent. Professional editors can expect to miss approximately 5 percent of the errors in any given piece. Ray Panko, a professor at the University of Hawaii, offers a more detailed breakdown of proofreading-related data on his gloriously named “Human Error Website” and arrives at a similar conclusion: even professional proofreaders aren’t perfect. “Nonword errors” (teh instead of the) are easier to catch (proofreaders tend to spot 90 percent of them), but “word errors” (principle instead of principal) are trickier: 15 percent of them go unnoticed.

Even the most experienced, fastidious, and obsessive copy editors, then, will miss things once in a while. If clean, coherent, correct copy is the goal, the answer is not only to have informed and conscientious editors, copy editors, and proofreaders—but to have as many of them as possible. When I asked John McIntyre, night-content production manager at the Baltimore Sun and past president of the American Copy Editors Society, whether he’d be willing to comment on typos and what publications can do to avoid them, he gamely agreed: “The traditional structure of the desk,” he wrote, “guaranteed multiple eyes on every text: The writer’s text was read by an assigning editor and sent to the copy desk, where it was edited by a copy editor, checked by the copy chief, and checked again by another copy editor reading page proof. And in the old days, even then a printer would beckon the makeup editor over and say in the collegial manner for which the printers were famous, ‘Do you see what you assholes have done this time?’”

Someone out there missed “shits a chord,” and that person undoubtedly feels like crap. But the fact that they overlooked a typo doesn’t mean they’re a terrible reader or editor—indeed, McIntyre explains, “Experienced copy editors miss typographical errors because they are experienced readers. Experienced readers do not read one letter at a time. They are familiar with words, the look of words, and common syntactical constructions. They recognize patterns. And the brain interprets familiar patterns in visual data, automatically correcting.”

What a typo often means is simply that there weren’t enough eyes on a text. When not enough people have not enough time to thoroughly edit too much material, mistakes will be made.

Publications should realize they have a vested interest in hiring a sufficient number of professional readers and then giving them the time necessary to read carefully and well: One glaring error is an embarrassment that can be recovered from. Frequent and predictable errors, though (however unimportant or petty they may seem), will ultimately erode the credibility of any organization. Although I would argue that we should not judge too harshly whoever missed the chord shitting (how many versions of the headline were there? how many people looked at the text? how long did they have to do so?), I have no such reservations when it comes to those responsible for unrelenting assaults on accuracy.

Take, for example, the Trump administration.

The White House recently released a list of “underreported” terror attacks; in it, the word “attacker” is misspelled twenty-seven times (“attaker”); “Denmark” appears as “Denmakr,” and “San Bernardino” as “San Bernadino.” As one headline noted, “Donald Trump’s ‘Unreported Terror Attack’ List Contains More Typos than Actual Unreported Terror Attacks.” Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale, as well as keeping an exhaustive running list of Trump lies, has been pointing out the mistakes that have made it into White House press releases: Australia has a president; the US apparently has two defence secretaries; Theresa May, the prime minister of the United Kingdom, has no “h” in her name. Just the other day, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, while reading from prepared notes, referred to the productive meeting Trump had just had with “Prime Minister Joe Trudeau of Canada.”

Then there was Donald Trump’s “inauguration print,” which was—until recently—available for purchase through the Library of Congress. It was graced by the following inspirational words: “No dream is too big, no challenge is to great. Nothing we want for the future is beyond our reach.” Then there was the tweet from the US Department of Education—the one that misspelled the name of W. E. B. Du Bois, the co-founder of the NAACP. And the follow-up apology tweet, which read, “Our deepest apologizes for the earlier typo.”

It’s possible that one decent and hard-working copy editor, operating without proper procedural backup, might miss “San Bernadino.” I defy any decent and hard-working copy editor to miss twenty-seven instances of “attaker.” I realize that the most serious charge levelled against the Trump administration will not be that it fails to employ competent copy editors. I realize that the misspelling of “attacker” is considerably less important than the larger context in which that word is being used. I realize that the fact that the White House evidently cares little about facts and rules and attention to detail has already been—and is still being—established in far more important ways. Nevertheless, whenever I see Trump-related typos (which is frequently), I feel both appalled and profoundly worried: each misspelling, each linguistic misstep, is a clear sign that very important people don’t know what they’re doing and couldn’t care less.

Memoir

Remembering Stuart McLean

Friends share stories of the legendary writer and radio host

Photograph by Derek Shapton
Murray McLauchlan

Musician and member of the Order of Canada

Stuart was a great hypochondriac. It was his signature; something we all had a laugh about.

I had been sending him e-mails, hoping to draw him into a project I was working on. I thought he was “being Stuart” by withdrawing, and that challenging him to take the stage again would take his mind off the challenge of his melanoma treatment. No answer. Send again. No answer.

I had no idea how bad it was. Like another friend in another time, Stuart went to ground, perhaps not wishing his friends to see him diminished by illness, but offering no chance for them to express appreciation for a life well lived or to say a grateful goodbye. I’ve lost friends before, but it’s still hard not to have the chance to take leave in a proper way.

I had a lot of laughs with Stuart, from New Year’s Eve at Peter Gzowski and Gill Howard’s place at Jackson’s Point, to being on the road in that wacky Vinyl Café tour bus with John Sheard, Dennis Pendrith, Jess Milton, and Don Jones. Stuart had a great respect for his audience and a strong vision about what he did, and wasn’t above butting heads with me to make sure that what went on stage was consistent with his ideals. I had a genuine respect for that kind of integrity.

It’s hard to see the great voices of my generation fall by the wayside. As the saying goes, “They don’t make ’em like that anymore.” They are signature people, uniquely themselves and cut from the rough cloth that is our country. Stuart is one of those voices in his humble, self-effacing, terrifically oddball way.

Denise Donlon

Media executive, member of the Order of Canada, and former executive director of CBC Radio’s English language service

Stuart was a friend—family in fact, in the broader sense of the word. Murray and I came to know Stuart through Peter Gzowski. We would typically spend New Year’s Eve together at Gzowski and Gill Howard’s place on Lake Simcoe with scrabble and champagne.

One New Year’s Eve, there was a spirited discussion about words. Specifically, Canadian words. What was the more correct Canadian word, asked Peter: “railway” or “railroad”? Stuart ran to the bookshelf to get a dictionary and argued that “railway” was correct—it was British in origin and described the rails themselves. Murray turned to song and recited Gordon Lightfoot lyrics. “There was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run.” Turns out, Stuart was correct. CPR was after all, the Canada Pacific Railway.

Could Stuart McLean have actually been more Canadian than Lightfoot, McLauchlan, and Gzowski combined? Perhaps in that one moment. Stuart loved this country. His ability to trap us in our cars telling simple, folksy stories was as fine and true as those rails—meeting his aim to takes us to “where laughter meets tears.”

Listening to The Vinyl Café on CBC Radio was connective tissue. Stuart was a loving, beguiling, sentimental craftsman—a tad corny at times, but hey, so are we. When I arrived at the public broadcaster, Stuart was one of the first ones through the door. “You’ve got a tough road,” he said, “but I’m glad you’re here.” That was big. The Vinyl Café was one of the highest rated shows on the service, no matter how many times it repeated. Through stories, music, and laughter, Stuart got to the heart of things.

His death took many of us by surprise. Stuart was upbeat about his melanoma, and so we checked in on occasion, and didn’t worry too much. If it was that bad, surely he would tell us. He was after all, a chronic hypochondriac. But no. He didn’t want his friends or his fans to think it was as serious as it was.

Thank you, Stuart. We’re grateful for all that you’ve shared with us, and through that, what we’ve shared with each other. Please rest easy and say hi to Peter Gzowski. Hope you find some good stories to keep you laughing. Love you.

Ann Swerdfager

Head of publicity for the Stratford Festival

I had two outstanding professors in my university career. Stuart McLean was one of them. I will never forget our very first class with him—his first or second year teaching at Ryerson. He told us a story about his first foray into TV. When he asked for tips, someone told him, “Don’t forget the cutaways.” He didn’t really know what that meant, he claimed, but on his first shoot day he announced to the crew, “We’re going to start with the cutaways!” Upon which everyone looked at him strangely and began shooting clocks and chairs.

Whenever I think of Stuart, the words “I’m standing here in the middle of the Ryerson skating rink” float through my mind. I don’t remember if I was actually doing a story from the middle of the Ryerson skating rink or if I was just sending Stuart up one day, but whichever it was, it reminds me of his incredible ability to set the scene. He did it as a journalist, a columnist, and as a writer. Few were better at it than he.

Stuart also had a way of attracting a story. I’ve called it luck, but I think it had more to do with the fact that he talked to everybody. He and I had one of those amazing story connections at a student party at Ryerson. I saw him enter the room and look a bit awkward so I walked over to chat. “I want to do a story on rubber boots,” he said to me. “Do you know anything about rubber boots?” To which I responded, “Yes, my great-great-grandfather was brought to Canada to cut the very first rubber boot in Canada for the Gutta Percha Rubber Company.” He got his story. I don’t know whether he ever didn’t.

Stuart and I got to spend one last day together not all that long ago. We reconnected at a charity event and arranged to meet in Stratford. We started with drinks outside at Foster’s and talked without pause. And then we moved on to Rundles, where we reminisced well into the night. Neither of us knew it would be our last meeting, but we couldn’t have spent the time better had we known.

I didn’t become the sort of journalist he and I thought I would. Life has a way of taking its own path. But Stuart gave me confidence and friendship. And If I had been the kind of journalist I’d wanted, it would have been very much like him.

Derek Shapton is a regular Walrus contributor.

Visual Essay

After a Fifteen-Year Fight, Safe Injections Coming to Montreal

“In a back alley, with the urgency of withdrawal and the fear of getting caught, risks are higher. You’ll miss the vein, you’ll use dirty syringes, or even dilute your drug with water from a street pond or a public bathroom.”

On February 6, 2017, Federal Minister of Health Jane Philpott authorized the opening of three safe injection sites in Montreal, a decision that marks the end of a fifteen-year battle for users and harm-reduction organizations. The Regional Director of Public Health took four years to fill in the best application possible before sending it to Health Canada in 2015. With the support of the provincial and municipal government, and the city’s police, it only needed a final push from Ottawa to remove the strict requirements imposed by Stephen Harper’s government. Here are the stories of five regular users who confirm that safe injection sites have been long awaited by the community.

Photograph by Valerian MazataudPhotography by Valerian Mazataud / Hans Lucas
Juliette (not her real name) uses heroin and other opioids several times a day, an average of four days a week. Juliette, in her early twenties, just finished her studies in visual arts, and looks nothing like the preconceived idea of a heroin user. The drug came to her two years ago, after she was diagnosed with depression. “It helped me chase away my suicidal thoughts,” she says. Whenever she has to inject outside of her home, she opts for a back alley or a bathroom. However, she explains, “You never know with what the drug was cut. Injecting is like playing Russian roulette.” In 2014, an exceptionally deadly year, Montreal faced an epidemic of 233 overdoses due to bad product. Even though a safe injection site would not offer product-testing services, it would certainly act as a hub for information on which product or dealer to avoid.
Photograph by Valerian Mazataud
In 1986, Cactus Montreal was the very first site in North America to provide sterile kits for injections. In 2015, 1 million sterile syringes were distributed on the island of Montreal, and Cactus alone distributed 600,000. Soon it will become one of the three safe injection sites in Montreal. “Finally, we’ll have a tool to be present at a crucial point in the consumption cycle,” explains the organization’s director, Sandhia Vadlamudy. “We are here before the act, but not during the actual injection, even though it would be a good time to deliver messages about prevention.”
Photograph by Valerian Mazataud
“Controlled consumption was not a given for me. I’ve known homelessness and all that goes with it. When you have nothing, drugs become a social bandage,” says Jerome, who now has a job as a social worker, an apartment, and a network of friends. He uses drugs occasionally “for fun,” he says, two or three times a month. “When I buy my dope, usually downtown, it happens that I want to inject right away, that I can’t wait to be back home. If there was a safe injection site, I would go there.” Right now, just like a large number of users in the downtown area, he hides in a back alley or in the bathroom of a cafe. “Luckily, I look alright, so I don’t get many suspicious questions.”
Photograph by Valerian Mazataud
An injection squat on Boulevard René-Levesque that has since been cleaned by authorities. Jerome, a drug user who injects two or three times a month, thinks that safe injection sites will save lives but also protect users from the street’s insalubrity. “In a back alley, with the urgency of withdrawal and the fear of getting caught, risks are higher,” he says. “You’ll miss the vein, you’ll use dirty syringes, or even dilute your drug with water from a street pond or a public bathroom.”
Photograph by Valerian Mazataud
During her twenty-five-year career in an accountancy firm, Rebecca (not her real name) kept her heroin use a secret. At first she was just curious to try the drug on weekends, but she quickly became addicted. That was thirty-five years ago. She then opened a thrift store and “enjoyed a good life.” She now works with drug addicts and still injects every day. Whenever she needs to use away from home, she has a friend with her. “If you are in cardiac or breathing arrest and no one’s here to bring you back, you die in just a few minutes,” she says. “I can organize my consumption to be in the right place, but many addicts find themselves in withdrawal in the street. They’ll buy anything from the first pusher they’ll meet. Accessing a safe injection site would be vital for them.” Rebecca is part of Cactus’s street-messengers group who patrol injection spots and hideouts in downtown Montreal every day. They pick up dirty syringes, distribute sterile kits, and keep in touch with a network of users, which is an essential part of the harm-reduction approach.
Photograph by Valerian Mazataud
Dirty syringes found in corners and back alleys in downtown Montreal. Safe injection sites would significantly reduce the quantity of hazardous material in the streets. Quebec’s National Institute for Public Health has compiled around forty studies on safe injection sites worldwide and the conclusions are crystal clear: they significantly reduce the effects of drugs on public order, they don’t contribute to a rise in drug-related infractions, and they don’t encourage new drug users to inject. “Users are already in the areas where the safe injection sites are planned to open,” says Jerome. “It can only benefit the community. It means less dirty syringes, and less probabilities to meet someone intoxicated or dead in a back alley.”
Photograph by Valerian Mazataud
Alice (not her real name) works a regular job from home. She has a husband, a kid, and a detached house in Montreal’s northern suburb, with strawberries in the garden and toys on the floor. She is fighting for a new life after being addicted to heroin since she was fifteen, when she was homeless and a sex-worker. She still injects from time to time, and methadone helps her a great deal. “Withdrawal is not the hard part,” she says. “Figuring out what to do with your life after is. You have to learn to think about something else than finding your dose. If I could control it, I would stop altogether.” She still drives downtown to get her sterile injection kits. Safe injection sites will be great for homeless addicts, she says, but for people like her, privacy is important. “I don’t want to see other people injecting or feeling observed. Injection is a very private thing.”
Photograph by Valerian Mazataud
Jules, twenty-nine, and Mickael, twenty-three, minutes after a heroin injection in the “snakepit,” an infamous downtown street injection spot near Université du Québec à Montréal. Both live in the street and would be ready to use a safe injection site, but that is not the case with all the users who share their profile.
Photograph by Valerian Mazataud
It just took six months for Moxy (not her real name) to tumble down from “the good girl in the private college” to injecting cocaine on a regular basis. For twelve years, drugs took control of her life so deeply that she never thought she would leave that world. It’s been over for eight years now, with the street and the sex work behind her, even though she still injects two or three times a month. “What I went through was extreme and I am not going back,” she says. “I used to walk with my eyes on the floor. I was ashamed. Even though you never want to inject in front of people and give that image, I did it. I just knew I needed my injection and nothing else mattered. It was not a choice.”
Photograph by Valerian Mazataud
The courtyard of an old convent in downtown Montreal is used as an injection squat by regular users during the summer. “Drug addiction is not only a matter of public security,” says Carole Morissette, who is in charge of the safe injection site case for the Regional Director of Public Health. “It’s a health issue. We’re talking about real humans in very difficult situations.” With federal approval, it may well be only a matter of months before the actual opening of safe injection sites in Montreal. For some, including the members of the Quebec Association for the Health of Drug Users, they will believe it when they see it. “We’ve heard too many times someone say, ‘It will open next spring.’ Until then, we’re counting the dead.”

Sophie Mangado has written for Le Devoir and L'Actualité.

Valerian Mazataud (focuszero.com) is a documentary photographer based in Montreal.

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