Vancouver Drug Awareness Field Visit Opens Eyes of NWT Youth and Raises Concerns About ‘Poverty Tourism’


Five students from Whatì, Northwest Territories, visited Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in November as part of a police-led education program on the consequences of drug use, leaving an impression on students but to the dismay of experts in British Columbia.

Cpl. Bradley Barbour, the commander of the RCMP detachment in Whatì, organized the trip as part of the community work to prepare the first all-weather road that will connect the town of about 400 residents to Yellowknife.

“Coming from the east coast, I’ve seen a lot of drugs like opiates and stuff being used, I just want the kids to at least know about these substances,” Barbour said.

In Vancouver, the trip was led by a volunteer group of retired and current Vancouver police officers called Odd Squad, whose “reality-based” drug education has proven controversial in the past. Critics say their approach to drugs is outdated and ineffective – and calls their use of drug addicts in the Downtown Eastside “exploitative”.

Whatì, NWT, a community of about 400 people, is about to be connected to the territorial capital by an all-weather road for the first time. (Mark Rendell / CBC)

The trip

Barbour traveled with five students, ages 14 to 16, for the four-day trip to Vancouver. The idea was for students to take a leadership role by making presentations in their school and community upon their return.

The kids spent three days with Odd Squad Productions, attended anti-drug and anti-gang presentations, and met a former addict who gave her perspective on addiction and recovery. They also did judo, as part of the Odd Squad’s physical literacy program.

The trip ended with a three-hour walking tour of the Downtown Eastside, a neighborhood known for its high number of drug addicts and community activism.

While in Vancouver, the students also took a walking tour of Simon Fraser University and visited the Aurora Winter Festival at the Pacific National Exhibition (PNE).

The trip followed a similar visit by a group of students from Fort McPherson, Northwest Territories, last fall.

The $ 25,000 trip was paid for with donations from the Northwest Territories Government’s Community Justice and Policing Division, Tłı̨chǫ Government, Whatì Community Government, Diavik Diamond Mines Inc., ‘Air Tindi, Nuna Logistics, Lake Awry Promotional Products and the Odd Squad Production Society.

“Unethical” poverty tourism?

A professor from Vancouver with roots in Yellowknife says this curriculum is “incredibly flawed.”

Glen Coulthard is Associate Professor in the First Nations and Indigenous Studies Program at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He is also a member of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation.

He calls the “voyeuristic” and “unethical” form of “poverty tourism” which further damages the Downtown Eastside by focusing on its weaknesses and ignoring its strengths.

Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, featured in September, is known for its high number of drug addicts and community activism. (Ben Nelms / CBC)

“It’s really hateful to me that it’s used in this negative portrayal as an example of how not to lead your life when there are a whole host of reasons people end up living there.”

Coulthard also said the Odd Squad’s approach to drug awareness went against the evidence.

“It should be a gentle, shameless, harm reduction approach, not a punitive approach, otherwise children will simply tend – and research has shown this – not to be upfront or engage in conversations about these really important questions. “

Karen Ward agrees. She has lived in the Downtown Eastside for 10 years and is a former member of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users. She is also part of the Megaphone Speaker Series, an organization dedicated to engaging Downtown Eastside residents in the conversation about them.

“It’s not about drugs,” Ward said. “It’s about people and how society as a whole has marginalized and literally banished people in these four little blocks. This voyeuristic thing, scaring people with people who have been victimized, is not useful.”

Marvin Romie, one of five students who made it to Vancouver, said the highlight was meeting people on the streets. (Submitted by the RCMP)

Philosophical differences

David Steverding is a law enforcement officer with the Vancouver Police Department and a volunteer with the Odd team. Over the past decade, he has visited several communities in the NWT to hold drug talks.

He led the walking tour, which he says is a good way to put addiction a face. He says the students, who were shy during the police-led presentations, were unusually interactive with people they met on the street.

Steverding agrees that there are many reasons people become addicted to drugs. “But to just say that people don’t have a choice, I don’t think that’s right or fair either.

“Personally, I think a lot of kids are sold on the idea right now that there are no consequences to drug use and experimentation and I think we offer a different side to that. “said Steverding. “Just to know that you leave your home and come to a place like Vancouver, Edmonton or Calgary or something new like that, there are a lot of things that can go wrong for you pretty quickly.”

An education

Marvin Romie, 14, was one of five students who traveled to Vancouver. He says the highlight was meeting people on the street.

“They wanted to talk to us even though they didn’t have to,” Romie said, “because they don’t want us to become like them.”

A similar tour four years ago impressed Danny Gaudet, a well-known Indigenous leader who heard about the Odd Squad during one of their drug presentations in Délįne, Northwest Territories. Traveling to Vancouver later on business, he called one of the volunteers and ended up spending half a day in the Downtown Eastside.

“I deal with young people all the time and I always try to find a way: how do we stop young people from dealing with drugs and alcohol? »Said Gaudet.

“I understand how people can feel like it’s intrusive when you go to tour Vancouver and watch this stuff,” he said. “I hope the people on the other end understand that they are also helping people try to stay away.”


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