News

Showing promise in B.C., prescription heroin now in peril

Larry Love, 62, a participant in the SALOME study, is photographed at the Providence Crosstown Clinic in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. (Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail)

Larry Love, 62, a participant in the SALOME study, is photographed at the Providence Crosstown Clinic in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
(Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail)

At 59, Doug Lidstrom says he is close to overcoming the heroin addiction that has dominated three-quarters of his life. Participation in a groundbreaking clinical trial has helped stabilize his habits and, perhaps within weeks, he will be among the first in North America to receive prescription heroin to help further combat his addiction.

But a swift decision by the federal government announced this week has halted Health Canada’s authorization of doctors to prescribe the drug. This means when doctors run out of Mr. Lidstrom’s three-month supply of diacetylmorphine (heroin) – which hasn’t arrived yet – the Vancouver resident must turn back to the conventional treatments that have failed him many times before.

In her announcement Thursday, Health Minister Rona Ambrose described the change as the closing of a “loophole” that allowed for the exploitation of a federal program. By banning doctors from prescribing “dangerous drugs like heroin, cocaine, ecstasy and LSD,” effective immediately, Ms. Ambrose made good on a vow of two weeks earlier, when her department first authorized the applications: to ensure it never happened again.

“This is turning me into a yo-yo,” Mr. Lidstrom said. “It’s playing with people’s lives.”

The Pivot Legal Society, which is representing Mr. Lidstrom and others in his position, will be exploring legal options that could include a constitutional challenge, said lawyer Scott Bernstein.

While illicit injection drug use in Vancouver has declined over the past 15 years, it remains a hot-button issue, largely due to the longstanding epidemics in the Downtown Eastside and politically charged harm-reduction measures such as Insite, the supervised injection site that recently marked its 10th anniversary.

The issue was again thrown into sharp focus mid-week with the release of a B.C. coroners report into the death of actor Cory Monteith, confirming he died in a Vancouver hotel room from a combination of injected heroin and alcohol. Ms. Ambrose invoked his name in her announcement – “to make the point it touches on all aspects of our community,” she said.

Continue reading at The Globe and Mail.

From residential school to the NHL: the remarkable story of Fred Sasakamoose

sasakamoose

Fred Sasakamoose, a residential school survivor and the first First Nations NHL hockey player, sits in the Vancouver Giants dressing room where the WHL hockey team unveiled First Nations tribute jerseys in Vancouver, Sept. 19, 2013.
(DARRYL DYCK FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

There weren’t many bright moments in the nine years Fred Sasakamoose suffered through residential school, but one came six years in, when he was 12.

Up until then, he had quietly endured the physical, emotional and sexual abuse, pushing aside the thoughts of exacting revenge that so often came to mind. He diligently completed his daily chores, making the beds, scrubbing the floors and doing farm work that included chopping firewood and milking two cows daily.

Then one day, he was told he had “earned” a pair of ice skates. He beamed at the memory.

He and his schoolmates fashioned hockey sticks out of plywood, pucks out of tree branches and tape. For the three more years he spent at St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in Duck Lake, Sask., hockey games became his salvation.

“I wanted to be a hockey player,” said Mr. Sasakamoose, who turns 80 this year. “I wanted to be a star, better than anybody else. I wanted to be – and I got to be.”

He went on to become the first Canadian aboriginal player in the National Hockey League, playing for the Chicago Blackhawks in 1953-1954.

Continue reading at The Globe and Mail.

National Truth and Reconciliation event opens in Vancouver

A procession of residential school survivors during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, British Columbia National Event in Vancouver, Sept. 18, 2013. (Rafal Gerszak for the globe and mail)

A procession of residential school survivors during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, British Columbia National Event in Vancouver, Sept. 18, 2013. (Rafal Gerszak for the Globe and Mail)

By Andrea Woo – Vancouver

More than 60 years later, Amy George still vividly remembers the snap of the long, black strap hitting her little hands, the pain, and the resulting welts that would render her incapable of gripping a pen, or the chains of a swing set.

But the abuse she endured at St. Paul’s Indian Residential School in North Vancouver went far beyond the physical: For nine years, starting when she was six, she was taught by nuns to hate herself from the inside out, she says, to be ashamed of who she was.

“I was taught the worst thing in the world was to be an Indian,” Ms. George told a crowd of thousands on the opening day of the national Truth and Reconciliation event in Vancouver on Wednesday. “[They would say,] ‘You’re so hard to teach because you’re so dumb.’ And that stayed with me for the rest of my life.”

This week’s four-day event, put on by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, is the sixth of seven mandated under the Residential Schools Settlement Agreement between former residential school students, first nations groups and the government of Canada.

The commission, established in 2007 as an independent body to inform all Canadians about what happened in more than 120 years of residential schools in Canada, is expected to deliver a full report by 2014.

Each of the national events has been designated a theme under the first nations’ seven sacred teachings; it was fitting for Ms. George, now a frank, 72-year-old Tsleil-Waututh elder, to speak at the one fashioned in the theme of honesty.

In an interview afterward, Ms. George said it is her hope that reopening these wounds and sharing such stories will help the public better understand the struggles of the first nations.

“A lot of our people suffer from addictions,” said Ms. George, who herself has struggled with drugs and alcohol. “The general population has no idea. They just say we’re a bunch of lazy, good for nothing people. We are a people coming out of oppression and genocide. Those schools were built so that we would die.”

Continue reading at The Globe and Mail.

Toward peace of mind: Man’s illness brings him full-circle through B.C.’s justice system

Lyle Richardson, pictured at the Justice Institute in New Westminster, has been living with schizoaffective disorder and helps police recruits learn to deal with mental health issues in the field. (Ben Nelms for The Globe and Mail)

Lyle Richardson
(Ben Nelms for The Globe and Mail)

One of the best things about my job is that I get to meet all sorts of interesting people I’d likely never meet otherwise. Lyle Richardson, diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and the central figure of our mental health series (running today through Wednesday), is one of those people. Over the course of several weeks, two lunches, several phone calls and dozens of emails, he told me seemingly everything about his life, answering every question I had without hesitation. It was fascinating to learn about what a psychotic episode is like — the intensity of the voices, the fact those voices belong to people he knows — and the complexities involved in moving forward. Here’s the first of four instalments of our series. I hope you’ll check out the rest.

Exactly what the small piece of plastic was he can’t now remember, but held under his shirt that day some 15 years ago, Lyle Richardson had convinced the staff at a downtown Vancouver electronics store it was a loaded gun.

“I went in and held the plastic under my shirt and asked for all the money,” he recalled. It was an early morning in mid-September and he can remember the warmth of the sun. “The manager said to give it to [me], so they gave me the $600 that was in the till and I walked out.”

At the time, his motivation for the robbery was clear: The voices wanted him to fast, and to do so, he would have to get out from under the watchful gaze of the guardians who prepared his meals. Cancun seemed an ideal place to fast; to get there, he would need money.

About a year earlier, the New Westminster native was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a combination of schizophrenia (typically characterized by delusions, hallucinations and breaks with reality) and dramatic mood swings. The milder symptoms of his adolescence had progressed into full-blown psychosis – a detour in Mr. Richardson’s road to adulthood that took him through B.C.’s mental health system.

His illness also brought him full-circle within the province’s criminal justice system, from being a robbery suspect, face-down and handcuffed on the streets of downtown Vancouver, to a speaker at the Justice Institute of B.C., where all municipal police officers in B.C. are trained and – as of this year – learn how to interact with the mentally ill.

The province has taken steps to advance its mental health system, investing in new facilities and launching a 10-year plan focused on preventing problems and on early intervention. However, mental health advocates point to lengthy waiting lists, gaps in care, and the alarming number of police service calls that involve people with mental illnesses as proof much is still to be done. The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) in B.C. has launched a campaign to make mental health an issue in next month’s provincial election.

A price tag can be put on how mental illness affects the economy – about $51-billion annually in health care and lost productivity in Canada, with about $6.6-billion of that in B.C. – but the emotional cost is incalculable and widespread. About one in five Canadians will experience a mental illness.

While only 1 per cent of Canadians will have schizophrenia, Mr. Richardson’s story shows the strong hold a mental illness can have – and the complexities involved in treating it.

Throughout high school, the symptoms “weren’t too dramatic,” Mr. Richardson recalls: “One day, I would be sleeping on the desk, and the next day, I would be on an emotional high, cracking jokes a mile a minute.” The graduating class at New Westminster Secondary elected him valedictorian because they knew he would make them laugh.

Next came a year at Simon Fraser University. Through an entrepreneurs club, Mr. Richardson landed a job as a junior executive assistant at a large venture capital firm, a position that afforded the young man free hockey tickets and occasional use of his boss’s Ferrari. On the surface, life was great, but Mr. Richardson began feeling withdrawn. When he was let go from the job, he didn’t mind.

The voices started when he was 23 or 24, familiar tones that were innocuous at first and even encouraging. One, for instance, told him to make a list of all the things he wanted to do. Mr. Richardson made that list, although he can’t remember if he ever accomplished those goals.

Even now, as a 39-year-old fully aware of his condition, it is impossible for Mr. Richardson to differentiate the hallucinatory from the real. The voices of his illness are as real as the voice of the barista who makes his coffee, the clerk who bags his groceries. They are, perhaps, even more real: “They kind of talk to my heart,” he said. “They affect me quite deeply.” So when the voice of a woman he quietly admired from afar told him to fast, he did. His weight dropped and he began acting out of character.

Continue reading at The Globe and Mail.

A Land Without Guns: How Japan Has Virtually Eliminated Shooting Deaths

A Tokyo “gun” shop owner, who mostly sells air rifles, displays one of Japan’s relatively few licensed rifles. (Reuters)

In light of the incredibly tragic events of today, I think it is worth revisiting this piece by The Atlantic from July. It is fairly short, but one of the most compelling pieces on gun control, and the impact of attitudes toward guns, I have ever read.

I’ve heard it said that, if you take a walk around Waikiki, it’s only a matter of time until someone hands you a flyer of scantily clad women clutching handguns, overlaid with English and maybe Japanese text advertising one of the many local shooting ranges. The city’s largest, the Royal Hawaiian Shooting Club, advertises instructors fluent in Japanese, which is also the default language of its website. For years, this peculiar Hawaiian industry has explicitly targeted Japanese tourists, drawing them away from beaches and resorts into shopping malls, to do things that are forbidden in their own country.

Waikiki’s Japanese-filled ranges are the sort of quirk you might find in any major tourist town, but they’re also an intersection of two societies with wildly different approaches to guns and their role in society. Friday’shorrific shooting at an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater has been a reminder that America’s gun control laws are the loosest in the developed world and its rate of gun-related homicide is the highest. Of the world’s 23 “rich” countries, the U.S. gun-related murder rate is almost 20 times that of the other 22. With almost one privately owned firearm per person, America’s ownership rate is the highest in the world; tribal-conflict-torn Yemen is ranked second, with a rate about half of America’s.

But what about the country at the other end of the spectrum? What is the role of guns in Japan, the developed world’s least firearm-filled nation and perhaps its strictest controller? In 2008, the U.S. had over 12 thousandfirearm-related homicides. All of Japan experienced only 11, fewer than were killed at the Aurora shooting alone. And that was a big year: 2006 saw an astounding two, and when that number jumped to 22 in 2007, it became a national scandal. By comparison, also in 2008, 587 Americans were killed just by guns that had discharged accidentally.

Continue reading here.

The saddest story I’ve done in a long time

From Friday’s Globe and Mail:

Coquitlam girl who posted bullying video takes own life

Like many teenagers, Amanda Todd struggled to fit in. The skinny girl with long brown hair didn’t have many close friends and often ate lunch alone. She was bullied – in person and online.

A product of her generation, Amanda turned to the Internet to express her frustrations, licking her wounds where they were often dealt. In a heartbreaking video posted on YouTube last month, the 15-year-old revealed boys had taken advantage of her, girls had assaulted her and, after a failed suicide attempt, bullies allegedly egged her on to try again.

On Wednesday, the teenager was found dead in a Port Coquitlam, B.C. home – the victim of an apparent suicide. Her death caused a firestorm of reaction at the highest levels, including a video message from B.C.’s Premier.

Continue reading here.

The video is absolutely heartbreaking. It’s devastating to see just how vulnerable she was, and how desperately she wanted to be liked. It made me angry wondering where the hell everyone was when she needed them. And it made me think long and hard about my own years in high school, and the instances that peers bullied kids and I did nothing. I never did like high school much and felt like enough of an outsider myself; I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be bullied so mercilessly and for so long. As a young girl, with no real frame of reference in life yet, she must have felt things would never improve. It is absolutely heartbreaking.

Nicely done, Internet

From the Globe and Mail:

Bullied to tears by teenagers on a school bus where she worked as a monitor, a New York State grandmother will be getting the vacation of a lifetime, thanks to the fundraising efforts of a Toronto man.

The episode, an illustration of the powers of the Internet to both hurt then redeem, began when Max Sidorov saw a video of the bullying which had gone viral.

Mr. Sidorov then went online to raise money to comfort the woman and, in less than 24 hours, raised more than $200,000 and turned himself and the bus monitor into global celebrities.

You really have to watch the video to get a sense of how bad it was. What would you do if one of those kids was your son?!

Sidorov saw the video and set a goal of fundraising $5,000 for the woman, Karen Klein, so she could perhaps go on a nice vacation. In a day, he raised more than $365,000. Cheers to you, Mr. Sidorov.

Read the whole Globe story here.

JUNE 22 UPDATE: $578,000 and counting!

Florida teen shot dead for “just walking around, looking about”

On Feb. 26, Trayvon Martin, 17, was shot dead for looking “real suspicious” while in a gated Florida community. What was he doing? “Just walking around, looking about,” according to George Zimmerman, the volunteer community watch captain who spotted him, followed him in his SUV, reported him to police then killed him. Neighbours say Zimmerman, 28, was “fixated on crime and focused on young, black males.” He had called police 46 times since Jan. 1, 2011. Twenty one days since the fatal shooting, there have been no arrests or charges.

The crux: Racism isn’t merely using “the N-word” or wearing blackface; it is the systemic and institutionalized treatment — in the streets, in the workplace, in the legal justice system — of ethnic minorities, like Troy Davis, like Trayvon Martin, like the countless people who came before them (e.g. Emmett Till) and who will inevitably come after. Is there any doubt that had the roles been reversed, Martin would be UNDER the damn jail by now? America is nowhere close to being “post-racial.”

Here is Zimmerman’s 911 call from when he spotted Martin:

 

Here is an important column on the fatal shooting by New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow.

Here is a piece on the youngest witness to the murder, 13-year-old Austin McLendon, who told HuffPost Black Voices he worried it could have been him who Zimmerman shot dead. “If I was like two years older, that could have happened to me.”

Here is a video interview with 13-year-old Austin McLendon.

And here is a list of things you should know about the murder. They include:

1. Zimmerman called the police to report Martin’s “suspicious” behavior, which he described as “just walking around looking about.” Zimmerman was in his car when he saw Martin walking on the street. He called the police and said: “There’s a real suspicious guy. This guy looks like he’s up to no good, on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around looking about… These a**holes always get away” [Orlando Sentinel]

2. Zimmerman pursued Martin against the explicit instructions of the police dispatcher:

Dispatcher: “Are you following him?”
Zimmerman: “Yeah”
Dispatcher: “OK, we don’t need you to do that.”

4. Zimmerman was carrying a a 9 millimeter handgun. Martin was carrying a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea. [ABC News]

11. Zimmerman “had been the subject of complaints by neighbors in his gated community for aggressive tactics” [Huffington Post]

12. A police officer “corrected” a key witness. “The officer told the witness, a long-time teacher, it was Zimmerman who cried for help, said the witness. ABC News has spoken to the teacher and she confirmed that the officer corrected her when she said she heard the teenager shout for help.” [ABC News]

MARCH 19 UPDATE: The U.S. Department of Justice, FBI and Florida Department of Law Enforcement will investigate the killing, the Miami Herald reports:

“The department will conduct a thorough and independent review of all of the evidence and take appropriate action at the conclusion of the investigation,” the Justice Department said in a statement. “The department also is providing assistance to and cooperating with the state officials in their investigation into the incident. With all federal civil rights crimes, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a person acted intentionally and with the specific intent to do something which the law forbids — the highest level of intent in criminal law.

“Negligence, recklessness, mistakes and accidents are not prosecutable under the federal criminal civil rights laws.”