Drug addiction, an issue plaguing the city’s downtown core, is also tearing apart families and livelihoods.
As a result, the Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs (SACPA) held a special session Tuesday, which included a panel of three industry experts and one concerned citizen familiar with the issue.
One of the panelists, Bonnie Lee, said the first step toward a cleaner life is family therapy, but that cannot happen if the community fails to unite.
“An event like this is what Lethbridge is doing right, bringing community together and trying to understand this complex syndrome of addiction,” said Lee.
She said supporting therapy for those afflicted by addiction is paramount to success, but family and friends who surround the addicted person must also receive therapy and/or training in many circumstances.
“People always say, ‘let’s communicate’, as if it’s that simple. It’s actually something very complex.”
Lee said communication, family support and addictions counselling must come together to help people overcome drug use. She also pointed out addiction is not the problem itself, but a “symptom of the problem,” and people dealing with addictions should not be blamed.
“Addiction is a relationship problem that stems from early childhood trauma.”
Panelist Robin James of the Lethbridge Housing Authority, said the province is currently taking a positive approach by ensuring people struggling with addiction can have a roof over their heads.
“Removing those user fees across Alberta has been instrumental,” said James.
She also said Lethbridge is ramping up its efforts in this area, as well, and is seeing more funding and support.
“Lethbridge is moving towards a safe, responsible housing focused on current gaps in our housing continuum.”
However, not every panelist agreed those struggling with addiction should be housed within the city.
Dennis Bremner, the self-proclaimed black sheep of the panel, said he has been working with Blackfoot elders to see a facility created outside of city limits that will house and help those in need.
He said that will remove them from the temptations of the city, while also helping to alleviate stress on businesses downtown.
“When we send people to rehab, the very first thing we do is remove them from all the bad influences and try to place them somewhere far from where there is familiar ground,” said Bremner.
He said Lethbridge will fall down the same rabbit hole as other cities, such as Vancouver, if treatment centres continue to operate at their current standard.
“I think we’re doing a lot right with manpower, but I think we’re doing a lot of things wrong with the whole system. I don’t follow what everyone is doing because I’ve seen it fail in too many places.”
He said his plan for a facility outside of the city would work to help both Standoff and Lethbridge, by cleaning up the streets while simultaneously supporting those who need help.
“Relieve Standoff of any problem people that they have, send them to the facility and we do the same [in Lethbridge]. Both get the opportunity to ensure they’ve got safety and security in their respective city,” said Bremner.
Chelsey DeGroot, program manager with Drug Treatment Court McMan Youth, said people who are struggling with addiction and facing criminal charges should be afforded help, not punishment.
“If jail worked in rehabilitating people, we wouldn’t need them because everyone would be rehabilitated,” said DeGroot.
She said drug courts will enable people to serve time for any committed crimes while simultaneously helping rid themselves of addiction.
Degroot added she used to work at the safe consumption site and said it was a success in Lethbridge, despite popular opinion.
“Did it ruin our community? No, it didn’t. We saw some success and unfortunately a lot of people in our community didn’t get to because they didn’t believe in the work that we did,” said DeGroot.
SACPA afforded members of the community a voice during the event as well, with people like Alvin Mills speaking about his Indigenous recovery camps outside of Lethbridge.
He said there are hundreds of Indigenous people struggling with addiction in Lethbridge and they must be included in any discussions.
“Every time we start talking on this, we have to include the Indigenous; 310 members from the Blood Reserve alone,” said Mills.
He said his recovery camp from last year saw huge successes, and he hopes to see more support this year, especially from the government.
“September the 30th, the funding got pulled by Ottawa, but we still made an impact.”
Despite the success of various programs, Mills remains concerned about the drug problem facing the community.
“Right now, the opioid crisis is at the worst it’s ever been.”
By Justin Sibbet, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Original Published on May 19, 2023