Kenn Quayle and Brian Mackenzie have brought harm reduction to LGBTQ communities in B.C. for a very long time.
Some 20 years ago, they organized focus groups for a B.C. government report on drug use among gay, lesbian, and trans people, helping produce what was likely the first government study of the topic anywhere in Canada.
Even earlier, they made an especially enduring contribution to drug-user organizing in Canada.
In 1997, it was Mackenzie and Quayle who came up with the name Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU). The Downtown Eastside activist group is still active and today plays a crucial role in the city’s response to the overdose crisis.
“We’ve been doing peer-support work with people who use drugs for about 25 years,” Quayle said in a telephone interview.
The couple were well-known for harm reduction in Vancouver’s underground rave scene of the 1990s. More recently, they left the city for a quieter life in Gibsons, on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast.
The move positioned Quayle and Mackenzie at an underserved intersection of harm reduction, LGBTQ people, and small-town life. Residents of less densely populated areas often experience difficulties accessing harm-reduction equipment such as clean needles and services such as nonjudgmental support groups. In Gibsons, Quayle and Mackenzie are filling those gaps.
“Mostly here, we see people using [drugs] in their own homes, so it’s spread out and all over the place,” Quayle said. “So it’s hard. It’s not like [Vancouver’s] Downtown Eastside, where you can just pull together a group of people.”
Mackenzie jumped in: “So we respond to outreach calls,” he said. “If people are in need of equipment, we’ve got bubble pipes for meth smokers, crack pipes for people who want those, and injection equipment as a needle exchange.”
Most of their work is performed through the i2i Peer Support Project, a nonprofit established in 2004 that today works with Vancouver Coastal Health’s Gibsons Health Unit and Lower Sunshine Coast Community Action Team.
The i2i Peer Support Project had a visible presence at last month’s Sunday in the Park With Pride + The Little Pride Parade event in Sechelt. Mackenzie and Quayle were also invited to put harm reduction front and centre at Pride, with this year's theme, "We're Saving Lives."
“We’re also choosing to focus more on antistigma efforts,” Mackenzie said. “Because a large part of what we are trying to do is help people to be more inclined and more able to access services.”