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Alberta government-backed recovery group supports U.S. anti-supervised consumption site campaign
Medicine Hat-based Our Collective Journey has received more than $800K from the provincial government.
A Medicine Hat-based recovery organization, which has to date received six-figures in government funding, has endorsed an anti-supervised consumption site ad campaign in the U.S.
Our Collective Journey (OCJ) has received $825,000 in grants from the UCP government over the past two years.
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When the government announced $5 million in grants to organizations working on addictions and mental health in August, OCJ was the single-largest recipient, with $725,000 in funding for “peer support programs for Albertans who are experiencing addiction issues, domestic violence and suicidal ideation.”Additionally, OCJ received $100,000 from the government in March 2021.
In December 2022, the group announced plans to open up a second location in Calgary, slated to open next month. OCJ also hosted the inaugural Southern Alberta Regional Recovery Conference in Medicine Hat in November.
An umbrella group, North America Recovers, is running mobile digital ads in the Washington, D.C., area, which ask President Joe Biden to “Please Help My Son Escape Addiction the Way You Helped Hunter,” referring to his son whose struggles with addiction have been well-publicized. “Stop government drug sites,” the group’s website reads. “Support addiction recovery, not addiction enablement.”
The “Who We Are” section of its website lists OCJ as one of 21 groups who support the coalition’s efforts to block supervised consumption sites.
Moreover, a banner image for that section includes a group shot with Alberta Ministry of Mental Health and Addiction chief of staff and former spokesperson Eric Engler and former ministry staffer Sheldon Bailey, as well as OCJ executive director Rick Armstrong. On the far right, an official Government of Alberta logo is visible. It’s unclear where or when this photo was taken.
I reached out to the ministry to inquire whether the presence of Engler and an Alberta government logo can be interpreted as an official endorsement of this campaign to remove supervised consumption sites in Washington, D.C.
Spokesperson Colin Aitchison told me the Government of Alberta “has not endorsed the campaign you mentioned.”
The government supports harm reduction services, including supervised consumption, “where appropriate,” he added, pointing to $35 million in funding for harm reduction services in the 2021/22 budget.
He did not explain what Engler and an official Government of Alberta logo were doing in the photo. At some point after my inquiry, the government logo was cropped out of the banner image.
On its website, North America Recovers refers to supervised consumption sites as “open-air drug scenes,” urging authorities to shut them down and to provide “mandatory treatment” for people deemed, it’s unclear by whom, a “danger to themselves or others, or [who] can no longer care for themselves.”
The coalition calls for basic emergency shelter to be provided for all, but with the catch that “more comfortable and private housing [be made] available as a reward for those who achieve treatment objectives like sobriety, taking medications, and participating in job training.”
The signatories want President Biden to “seek the involvement of a broader group of experts and advocates than the handful of voices pursuing drug consumption sites,” whose expertise is dismissed as “biased and distorted” in favour of full drug legalization.
Additionally, the website claims a supervised consumption site in Alberta “was closed due to its record of failure and its disruption of the neighborhood around it,” in apparent references to Lethbridge’s ARCHES site, which was shut down in 2020. But that’s not why we were told it was shut down.
The government at the time said it was pulling ARCHES’ funding because a financial audit found $1.6 million in funds which weren’t accounted for. A Lethbridge Police Service investigation was later able to track these funds down, but supporters of the site, myself included, always suspected an ulterior motive.
ARCHES was, in fact, remarkably successful at serving its intended purpose — reversing overdoses. It also might be of interest to this recovery coalition that ARCHES made 9,000 referrals to detox, treatment, and mental health and addictions counselling, from its March 2018 opening to August 2019.
OCJ’s work, which I must emphasize is valuable for those who are ready to enter recovery, fits well into the provincial government’s so-called “recovery-oriented system of care,” which focuses almost exclusively on getting people into recovery beds while gradually whittling away at the province’s already-minimal harm reduction infrastructure.
OCJ’s relationship with the government is more than financial. Armstrong was invited by Premier Danielle Smith to be a guest of honour at the Speech from the Throne, and received the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal from the premier in December.
Armstrong, however, was kind enough to chat with me about the reasoning behind OCJ’s support for the North America Recovers campaign. He conceded that while some of the campaign’s messaging is crass, the broader message is something he, and by extension OCJ, supports.
“We support recovery. We don't support sustained enabling of drug use,” Armstrong said, adding that he supports harm reduction measures insofar as they’re “part of a plan that gets people into a position of recovery,” such as using methadone or a similar substitute to wean people off drugs.
He said he doesn’t think that the way to get people into recovery “is to just provide them sustained access to drugs [emphasis mine].” But who are these harm reduction advocates who want to simply give everyone access to drugs and call it a day? I don’t know any. Armstrong said he does.
The worst part about this discussion is how “super political” it’s become, Armstrong added. “My position is recovery,” he said. “I don't give a shit which side of the political spectrum you're on. I think ultimately we as society should be able to hope and support people to get to a place of recovery, not just a place of existence in their addiction.”
While he acknowledged the warm relationship he has with the UCP government, Armstrong said he’s also had discussions with local NDP candidate Gwendoline Dirk, who ran against Smith in November’s Brooks-Medicine Hat byelection. But, ultimately, the UCP is pursuing policies OCJ agrees with. “They’re supporting a model that we believe in,” he said.
Armstrong said OCJ played no role in financing the ad campaign.
OCJ’s endorsement of this campaign was brought to my attention in a tweet from passionate Edmonton-based harm reduction advocate Dr. Elaine Hyshka.
The $1.5-million figure in Hyshka’s tweet was a miscalculation based on the government having re-announced its $825,000 commitment in March, but her broader point stands.
Hyshka, who is the Canada Research Chair in Health Systems Innovation at the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health, told me harm reduction advocates like herself view supervised consumption sites “as one important strategy for preventing drug poisoning death,” not the be all and end all, as Armstrong suggested.
“It is unfortunate to see an Alberta-based organization lobbying the United States government against supporting this intervention,” she added.
To be honest, I feel some sense of personal responsibility for this.
Armstrong, alongside future OCJ co-founders Damyan Davis and Ryan Oscar, appeared on a podcast I co-host, The Forgotten Corner, to talk about a spate of suicides plaguing Medicine Hat in 2020 and open up about their own struggles with addiction and mental health.
Oscar, who runs OCJ’s programming, suggested the enthusiastic feedback they got from this appearance was one inspiration for starting a recovery organization together. I consider him a friend, and was an early supporter of the group’s efforts.
I’ve watched as OCJ has grown over the past couple years, often in bewilderment at how close they’ve gotten with the UCP. I haven’t said anything publicly about my concerns with their trajectory until now.
But to lend their good name to a campaign that looks down upon people who aren’t ready to enter recovery and actively advocate against policies that will help keep them alive is, in my view, a bridge too far.
Edited by Scott Schmidt
This piece has been updated with comment from the Ministry of Mental Health and Addiction, and to note the Government of Alberta logo has been removed from the banner image of the North America Recovers campaign’s “Who We Are” section.