Security at Winnipeg raves

A need for harm-reduction and conflict-resolution training

Without an approach or training rooted in harm reduction, security at rave venues aren’t prepared to keep attendees safe. (Supplied photo)

I’m dancing, sweaty. My eyes flicker back and forth so fast I can hardly see, rolling back up. I’m practically melting. I feel so good. And my chest, it feels so heavy, and my jaw clenches and clenches and clenches. I’m swaying to the beat at this rave, all loose and wobbly, and my friends are all around me. But I’m on edge. Am I really safe here?

I’m high and drunk, and maybe I’m slower on the uptake, but I’m still just a person.

When the show’s over, and the lights turn on, sometimes the crowd disperses into community chatter, all peace and love and warmth. Other times, some venues that host raves hire security teams that yell into megaphones, scream and hurl threats our way. Get out. Now.

It’s scary.

When harm reduction and security (dis)connect

Raves are well-known for their culture of drug use. As a result, many locations work with organizations focused on harm reduction, like Project Safe Audience (PSA, where I volunteer) or Grey Jay Healing.

René Hince, co-founder of Grey Jay Healing, says harm reduction is a philosophy that provides resources to make any activity safer, “whether you agree with that activity or not.”

“You’re trying to divert people away from the most dangerous behaviour that they could be doing.” For example, harm reduction looks like wearing a helmet while longboarding or giving out earplugs at concerts, Hince says. “It is not limited to drug use and sex exclusively.”

Ironically, in my experience, some venues like the Exchange Event Centre that typically work with PSA still have security teams that don’t get it. The guards often look uncomfortable, confused and uncertain of how to handle so many people on drugs. They usually resort to yelling and kicking people out at the end of the night.

On the other hand, I’ve had mostly better experiences with security at places like the Park Theatre, the Royal Albert Arms and the Pyramid Cabaret. I would wager that being a petite white woman means I’ve had an easier time of things.

One factor that seems to make a difference is preparedness. Curtis Howson, head of security at the Park Theatre, says that “an hour or two before the event, I ask (the event organizer) what they expect, what kind of numbers we’re looking at in terms of the crowd, what they expect from us and what the culture of the event is.” While the Park Theatre officially doesn’t host “raves,” he says they host “dance parties.”

Veda Končan, project manager at the Manitoba Harm Reduction Network, says in an email to The Uniter, “I would also like to see structural shifts, like venues/organizers acknowledging that drug use happens in these spaces.” If drug use were less stigmatized and harm-reduction education well known, maybe I would feel safer at these events.

One anonymous source who works security at raves around the city says things usually go wrong on quiet nights, because security guards get bored.

Because some substances are illegal, people use drugs outside or in bathroom stalls. As a result, security guards don’t always know what substances people have taken.

The security worker says, “I’ve heard from bar owners that if they had their way, (drug use) would be right out in the open, because that way, at least you know, and then if something happens, you know what you’re dealing with.”

To complicate matters, they say that with the rising costs of drinks, more people are pregaming and showing up to venues already drunk, meaning security guards have to decide whether to let inebriated customers in or not make any money.

Still, both security guards took up harm-reduction strategies when they had to help people who are too inebriated. They mentioned pulling people aside, making sure that they’re okay, they have water, their friends know where they are, and they have a safe ride home.

Howson says his job is about safety, not kicking people out. “We do follow-ups as well,” he says. “I’ll call the next day to make sure that the person made it home safe.”

Better training, better pay

Despite my relative safety as a white woman, I’m still scared of security guards. I’ve had too many bad experiences to trust that any security guard could be respectful and understanding.

“I look the part. I’m six-foot-eight. I’m 350 pounds,” Howson says. “The whole stereotype of that security guard that needs to be rough and tough and be physical and throw people out, that shouldn’t be the case at all.”

“I’d rather much talk about it and make sure everyone’s feeling safe,” he says.

The provincial government does not currently have harm reduction as part of its security-guard licensing program.

Trainees are “not taught how to intervene in a situation ... It’s a farce. We need to have better training and better standards, and maybe more inspections done by the government to make sure the security guards are trained and licensed,” the anonymous source says.

They add that most security personnel in bars do not have legal security licenses. “Some of the guys, they show up to collect a paycheck, and they don’t care. (The security guards) don’t pay attention,” the anonymous source says.

Moreover, they say security guards need to be better compensated for their work, which can require putting their lives at risk. The anonymous security guard says they make $14 an hour, but “there should be an industry-standard wage.”

Do your drugs safely

Overall, people are going to do drugs, but they should be able to do them with non-judgmental supports available. Hince says that if a harm-reduction organization can show up before an event, that’s ideal. This way, any potential harm may be identified before patrons show up.

“Know your limits,” Howson says. In particular, he notes that problems tend to arise when people go out by themselves. “Let people know where you’re going,” he says, and have transportation planned for the end of the night.

Končan says that buying illegal drugs risks drug poisoning, overdose and death. She says people should tell their friends what drugs they’re using. “I would love to see robust drug checking and peer-topeer support.” Similarly, the anonymous source says: “don’t buy (drugs) from random strangers.”

“We believe folks should be supported in using drugs in the safest way possible so they live to rave another day,” Končan says.

Published in Volume 77, Number 24 of The Uniter (March 30, 2023)

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