Elder Wanda Whitebird

Elder Wanda Whitebird is being recognized with a Casey Award for leadership in social justice and harm reduction for the HIV/AIDS community.

The award honours Whitebird’s work in solidarity with those who are incarcerated, people living with HIV and people who use drugs.

Wanda has long been passionate about social justice for people who are incarcerated. She began as a penitentiary liaison in the Maritimes, before moving to Ontario in 1986 to work with Indigenous people in the prison system, becoming among the first of the Indigenous community in Toronto to do ‘in-reach’ to incarcerated members of the community.

She also worked for Anishnawbe Health in Toronto for 13 years and was instrumental in starting the Traditional Healing Program before becoming an outreach worker for the Ontario Aboriginal HIV/AIDS Strategy (OAHAS), building relationships and providing education for members of the community who were street-involved.

Her activism around HIV led to her early adoption of harm reduction. Indigenous health promoter Les Harper says Wanda was one of the first Elders he knew who embraced the concept of reducing harm rather than requiring a change in behaviour.

In addition to the direct support for people who use substances, Elder Wanda’s willingness to share teachings has been important for others working in the harm reduction community. Community scholar and activist Zoë Dodd says that while the majority of service-users she works with are Indigenous, most are accessing support from non-Indigenous organizations, making Elder Wanda’s capacity-building skills extremely valuable. She also praises Elder Wanda’s ability to support others, and says, “her teachings of unconditional love and support have been instrumental in keeping many of us well in this challenging work.”

When Wanda lost the ability to walk in 2019, she extended her activism to the disability community, and in the past year guided the development and construction of a wheelchair accessible sweat lodge, where she continues to conduct ceremony.

Additionally, she has supported gender-based initiatives, notably organizing an annual Valentine’s Day Strawberry Ceremony in honour of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Toronto for almost 20 years. The ceremonies are held in front of Toronto Police headquarters in protest of police complicity and the settler colonial state. In 2021, Wanda was an Elder for the Northern Feather Program, a project included a regalia-making workshop for Indigenous women who access harm reduction programing at South Riverdale Community Health Centre. Said one participant, “[this group] believed that even at our lowest and while using drugs that we should be able to take part in all activities in our culture…this is what Wanda teaches.”

Casey House extends warm congratulations to Elder Wanda Whitebird on achieving this recognition.

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