Canadian Politics (Federal), Canadian Politics (Provincial), Opinion, Published Articles

Drug addiction should be a health, not criminal issue

Originally published in the Medicine Hat News

Canada is currently in the midst of an opioid overdose crisis.

The two most western provinces and territories — British Columbia, Alberta, Yukon and the Northwest Territories — have been hit especially hard, likely due to their relative proximity to China, where much of the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl is produced.

According to Government of Canada statistics from 2016, B.C. and Yukon each had more than 15 opioid overdoses per 100,000 people, while Alberta and N.W.T. each had between 10 and 14.9 overdoses per 100,000 people.

This epidemic had led to a recognition in some quarters that the current approach of criminalizing drug use hasn’t been remotely effective in preventing deaths.

Safe injection sites, which will soon be coming to Edmonton, Calgary and Lethbridge are a positive development in handling opioid addiction as a health, rather than criminal, matter, but if we want to address the root cause of drug overdoses, we ought to take the bold step of decriminalizing drug use full stop.

Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh acknowledged this bitter reality when he said that personal drug use should be treated as a “social justice” rather than “criminal justice” matter.

Critics will say that decriminalizing drugs normalizes their use, but this objection misses the mark.

Decriminalizing drugs, as opposed to legalizing them, simply shifts the burden of dealing with them from police officers and lawyers to public health officials.

When people are physically addicted to substances like heroin or fentanyl, illegality is not going to stop them from using.

The question is whether they’re going to share needles, and risk contracting HIV, buy impure drugs off the streets to get their fix, risking a fentanyl overdose, or engage in other criminal activities to get money for their addiction.

Decriminalization allows public health officials — people who actually study drugs and their effects — the latitude to deal with the opioid crisis in the most effective way possible.

Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, arguably the epicentre of Canada’s opioid crisis, has taken this approach.

Vancouver’s Crosstown Clinic not only provides opioid users with a place to do their drugs safely, but also prescribes them free medical doses to avoid overdoses and allow addicts to spend their money on necessities.

Naturally, there are many people uncomfortable with giving addicts their fix, but once one thinks about drug abuse as a health issue, it’s a perfectly sensible approach.

It’s not as if anyone can walk into the Crosstown Clinic and receive free heroin. They must demonstrate a need.

These are people who tried heroin alternatives like suboxone and methadone and still couldn’t get clean.

Not only does this program prevent needless deaths, but it allows the most severe addicts to function as members of society, rather than outcasting them as criminals and junkies.

Drug policy is in the federal government’s jurisdiction, so the provinces are somewhat constrained, but the Crosstown Clinic shows that municipal governments, with the province’s blessing, can do more to address the opioid crisis.

The Alberta Government acknowledges the need for harm reduction in its opioid crisis response, which includes safe consumption sites, peer support and drug substitution therapy.

This is a solid first step in the right direction, but the Alberta NDP should take the bold next step and do what it can as a provincial government to stop treating addicts as criminals.

If enough provinces take B.C.’s approach, then the federal government, which already supports supervised consumption sites, will take note and hopefully take steps towards reducing the bloated Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

Canadian Politics (Provincial), Crime, Human Interest, Published Articles

App will tell you all photo radar locations in major Alberta cities

Originally published in the Medicine Hat News

A University of Alberta computing science student has developed an app to track photo radar enforcement in major municipalities across the province, including the Hat.

Benjamin Lavin said his app was originally geared toward Edmonton, but in the past few weeks it has expanded to the city’s suburbs and other major cities — Calgary, Red Deer, Lethbridge, Grande Prairie, Fort McMurray and Medicine Hat.

“It started because I had heard that Edmonton had started releasing its photo radar information online,” he said. “I wanted to set a challenge myself to see if I could take this information and put it into a more usable format for people.”

In the Hat, photo radar locations are also published in the News.

“Once I launched it here in Edmonton I started getting emails from people all over the country asking if I would consider expanding the app into their city.

“I figured that expanding it to the rest of Alberta would be a good first expansion step.”

Developing the app provided Lavin with the opportunity to put his computing science skills into practice.

“It’s all information that the various cities publish online,” he said. “This is really just aggregating all of this information and putting it into a more useful format.”

The app is crowdfunded, meaning it’s free, but users can make voluntary donations.

“I wanted to design it as a public service, so it is a free app for iOS and Android, because I wanted as many people to use it as possible,” said Lavin.

MHPS concerned with distracted driving

Sgt. Clarke White of the MHPS Traffic Unit has no objection to aggregating publicly-available photo radar data, but expressed his concern that an app of this sort could contribute to more distracted driving.

“We’re not trying to hide anything, we’re just trying to use the (photo radar) to slow down motorists, regardless of where it’s sitting. We want the behaviours to change.

“My biggest concern with it would be the added distraction that the device is creating,” said White, adding that reducing distracted driving is one of the traffic unit’s top safety priorities.

“We all know that (when) that device buzzes or dings, it’s going to draw your eyes towards it.”

Canadian Politics (Provincial), Opinion, Published Articles

Rights of LGBTQ students should be non-negotiable

Originally published in the Medicine Hat News

U.S.-style culture wars are coming to Alberta.

United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney recently announced that he will oppose the NDP government’s new bill codifying support for gay-straight alliances in the province’s schools.

Bill 24, an expansion on Bill 10 from earlier this year, forbids teachers from divulging a student’s membership in a GSA to parents without the student’s consent, which will have the impact of blocking educators from potentially outing LGBTQ kids to their parents.

Kenney’s opposition to this common-sense measure is a blow to those moderates who hoped Kenney would pivot away from the social conservatism that has defined much of his political career after winning his party’s leadership.

Ontario PC leader Patrick Brown did just that after winning his party’s leadership with support from social conservative elements. He even marched in Toronto’s Gay Pride Parade.

Kenney has decided not to take this route, instead launching a full-scale assault against GSAs under the guise of parental rights.

The UCP weren’t allowed to participate in Calgary Pride until they demonstrate their commitment to LGBTQ rights. Kenney’s level of commitment is now on full display.

Kudos to Education Minister David Eggen for standing up for Alberta’s LGBTQ students. Is Bill 24 a political move designed to paint the Conservatives as stodgy social conservatives in the runup to the 2019 election?

Absolutely. But Kenney has so far done everything in his power to promote this view.

Politics aside, it is of the utmost importance that any potential future government has a difficult time reversing the progress the NDP has made for LGBTQ rights in the province.

It doesn’t matter what one thinks of the NDP’s fiscal record. The rights of the province’s LGBTQ students to join a GSA should not be subject to debate.

Kenney is a shrewd political actor. He wouldn’t have taken this position if there weren’t electoral gains to be made from it.

The Alberta Teachers Association, which Kenney accused of encouraging its members to join the nowdefunct Wildrose party en masse to block the merger with the PC party that brought about the UCP, wants to speak with the UCP leader to clarify his misconceptions about GSAs.

Kenney won’t bite, saying only that he’s spoken to “hundreds” of teachers who expressed their concerns, but the ATA represents 46,000 members across the province.

Kenney has been peddling blatant misinformation about GSAs. In a recent news conference, he suggested that they’ll be teaching sex ed.

GSAs are a social club, not a classroom. The only thing they’ll be teaching is that there’s nothing wrong with being LGBTQ, something that every party leader should support.

Cypress-Medicine Hat MLA Drew Barnes, who supported Kenney during the UCP leadership race, said that although he supports GSAs, he’s also in favour of notifying parents when their child joins one, barring extenuating circumstances.

Bill 24 does the opposite, prohibiting educators from notifying parents except in circumstances where the child is at risk. That’s as it should be.

Barnes and Kenney can’t have it both ways. Either they support GSAs, which allow LGBTQ students and their allies a space to gather away from any homophobia that is all too real in schools, or they don’t.

Notifying parents of a student’s GSA membership defeats this purpose, by possibly exposing them to homophobia at home.

There’s no justification to willfully run that risk, with all the progress with LGBTQ rights that have been made in recent years.

Canadian Politics (Provincial), Community News, Human Interest, Published Articles

Nuns welcomed home at St. Joseph’s

Originally published in the Medicine Hat News

Four nuns who worked at St. Joseph’s Home before 2012 made their return to the facility on Thursday.

Carmelite Sisters Gabriel John, Mary Peter, Mary Rita and Mary Regina were employed by St. Joseph’s Home prior to it being brought under the umbrella of Covenant Health.

They were accompanied by Fr. Frances Tran of the Diocese of Calgary, Covenant Health president and CEO Patrick Dumelie, former premier and chair of Covenant Health’s community board Ed Stelmach, and Covenant Care president Truman Severson.

Mary Rita, the home’s administrator for 17 years, said it feels great to be back.

“We feel right at home, just like we did when we were here,” she said.

“I am so grateful to Covenant Health for keeping it, inviting us back (and) making such a wonderful welcome at St. Joseph’s.”

Mary Rita said she got involved in seniors care for the same reason she joined the church.

“I was very interested in seniors care in helping people and making a change in their lives hopefully,” she said.

Stelmach, whose premiership from 2006 – 2011 gave birth to Alberta Health Services, said Covenant Health is looking to possibly open a new facility in town.

Covenant Health works in conjunction with AHS to deliver care in its facilities, offering seniors care through Covenant Care.

Dumelie said that although it’s a separate entity from the government, many of Covenant Health’s facilities are funded by AHS, like the Carmelite Hospice on the third floor of St. Joseph’s, named after the sisters.

“The sisters really started this in the ’50s and up until recently … they did it without any government support or funding,” he said, referring to the Carmelite Sisters broadly, rather than the specific nuns in attendance.

Stelmach said his experience with faith-based healthcare goes back to when he stayed in a Catholic Ukranian hospital in Andrew, Alta., after an injury when he was six.

“They taught me a lot about volunteerism and they taught me a lot about holistic healthcare — body, mind and soul,” he said.

“It’s got nothing to do with politics or religion. It’s about providing passionate care. The nuns’ doors are open to everybody.”