A Downtown Eastside resident says she’s relieved a business owner has cancelled tours of the vulnerable neighbourhood after community opposition, but is worried similar tours could still come in the future.
“I was shocked, disgusted, angry,” said BeeLee Lee, who lives in the Downtown Eastside and works as support worker in the community. “I felt quite a bit of rage.”
The Scared Straight Tour offered to show children and teenagers how people with addictions live in the Downtown Eastside in an effort to educate kids about the dangers of drug use.
According to a version of the website that is no longer online, the business said it offered “tours of the worst drug infested ghetto in North America” and promised conversations with “local residents who won’t hesitate to share just how addiction has ruined their lives.” In-person tours were offered at $350 per person, while a subscription to a virtual tour started at $89 per person.
Critics said language like “infested” and “ghetto” stigmatizes vulnerable people who live in the neighbourhood, and the idea of parading groups of people through the Downtown Eastside to gawk at people who live in poverty and with addictions is “exploitative and harmful.”
“It's really about perpetuating this notion that people are choosing to live in these conditions and are not making better choices that would result in a safer community,” said Meenakshi Mannoe, a policing and criminalization campaigner for Pivot Legal Society.
“The word that comes to mind for me is 'archaic,' right? When we think about our current understanding of both systemic poverty and intergenerational poverty, systemic and structural racism.”
In a written response to questions sent to him by The Tyee, Pierre Morais, the presenter of the tour, defended the approach.
“We remain proud of the work we have done over the past 20 years and that we were able to reach thousands of youth who have taken our program and walked away with a clearer understanding of the devastation addiction can cause. Unfortunately, we are no longer offering educational experiences for youth in the DTES.”
Morais added that he had received legal advice not to do media interviews.
The tour website was abruptly shut down earlier this week after people who live and work in the Downtown Eastside and drug policy advocates across Canada raised concerns about the tour on social media.
While the Scared Straight website claimed the tour was listed on the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction’s website and prominently displayed the logo for CCSA, the centre says it never endorsed the tour or knew it existed. In an email to The Tyee, communications advisor Lee Arbon said the centre requested the Scared Straight Tour remove “any traces of CCSA and any references to CCSA from its website” on Monday.
Odd Squad Productions, an organization founded by two former Vancouver police officers, has provided drug education presentations to the Scared Straight Tour, the organization confirmed in a statement. The last presentation was given over two years ago, according to the charity, which has produced documentaries featuring drug users and offers educational presentations. Some educators have criticized the Odd Squad’s approach as outdated.
Tonya Robitaille now lives in Grand Forks where she works in youth mental health, but she has ties to the Downtown Eastside and has struggled with addiction in the past. Robitaille first saw the tour advertised to her on Facebook and decided to post it in a Facebook community group.
The notion that youth have to see graphic images of people who have addictions to “scare” them away from doing drugs is not new, but Robitaille said it’s a tactic that isn’t effective and causes harm to people who use drugs. The idea that addiction is a personal choice is also not accurate, Robitaille said.
“I know that scaring youth is not a deterrent for them using drugs or any harmful substances,” Robitaille said.
“Most of the people that are down there were traumatized as youths themselves, or they’re intergenerational trauma survivors. They all have various degrees of trauma, and to simplify it and just say that you're going to end up there if you do drugs is not accurate at all.”
Robitaille said stigma against drug users is already strong and the shame and feelings of worthlessness prevent people from getting the help they need, whether it’s seeking harm reduction services like supervised consumption sites or help to get treatment for addiction or other health problems.
“That's what took me so long to get help when I was on the street,” said Robitaille. “To have people… looking at them like they're freaks of society — that just creates so many barriers to people being able to ask for help.”
Lee said she’s also troubled that Morais appears to have been making money from the tour. She sent an email to Morais, asking how much it cost.
According to his response, which Lee shared with The Tyee, Morais said tours were currently on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He went on to write that he charges $350 per person and $150 for an adult accompanying a child or youth. The price included two nights of hotel accommodations, meals and the tour. Families could pay $1,500 for a one-day tour, plus expenses for Morais. A previous version of the Scared Straight website offered subscriptions to a virtual tour starting at $89.
Lee said she’s happy to hear that the tour is not operating any longer, but she’s concerned it might start up again or that similar tours could pop up in the neighbourhood.
Lyndsay Watson, the legal director for Pivot Legal, has also been watching the issue closely. Watson said the Scared Straight Tour is a good example of the need for “social condition” to become a protected category in the B.C. Human Rights Code. Currently, people who live in poverty and face discrimination based on their low incomes are not a protected category. Pivot Legal has been lobbying to add social condition to B.C.’s human rights laws.
Watson said the Scared Straight Tour is “an example of poor and marginalized people being treated as less than humans with full dignity and equal rights to any other person. Making it clear that groups cannot discriminate against people on the basis of social condition would protect against stigmatizing harms like these tours.”
People who live in the Downtown Eastside do not want people taking photographs and video without permission, and tour buses that roll through the neighbourhood full of photo-snapping tourists are also not welcome, Lee said.
Because many people who live in the neighbourhood are homeless or live in tiny single-room occupancy hotels, they have no choice but to live much of their lives on the street in public view.
“There are lots of people in this community that love the community,” Lee said.
“People come down here every day to try to make people's lives a little bit better. And when we see people exploiting or trying to make money or making fun of the suffering of the people in this community, then a fire sort of erupts in us and we protect our community.”
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