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Rights + Justice

A Conservative MP Helped Spread Misinformation about Safe Injection Sites

Advocate Sarah Blyth says politicians need to ensure accuracy before sharing false, slanted or ‘rage-farming’ social media content.

Jen St. Denis 14 Mar 2024The Tyee

Jen St. Denis is a reporter with The Tyee covering civic issues. Find her on X @JenStDen.

The founder of an overdose prevention site in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside says she’s disappointed to see a Conservative politician spreading misinformation about safe injection sites during a crisis that has killed over 40,000 Canadians.

Sarah Blyth is urging politicians to verify online posts after Todd Doherty, Conservative MP for Cariboo-Prince George, shared a video taken by a former homeless outreach worker from Oregon who is currently facing 19 charges of theft, identity theft and official misconduct related to his job.

“It’s really important for every politician, from every party, to make sure what they put out there is accurate information,” she said.

The video Kevin Dahlgren shared on X on Sunday shows the interior of what Dahlgren said was a safe injection site, but later acknowledged was a homeless shelter in Vancouver. The video shows several men using drugs or incapacitated.

Doherty shared the post and said the video shows “an inside look into a ‘safe’ injection site in Vancouver.”

He went on to call out Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and B.C. Premier David Eby for their poor handling of the overdose crisis.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” Blyth told The Tyee. “I think the politics is scary for me, in the sense that we save people every day. We see hundreds of people, and we help them — we’re a frontline emergency service and it’s not being depicted [accurately], the way that we operate.”

As the overdose crisis has worsened, right-wing parties in Canada have pushed back against harm reduction approaches like overdose prevention sites, safe supply and even clean needle programs.

Those parties say they want to focus on treatment and recovery from drugs, rather than harm reduction.

Dahlgren’s Sunday post came as Conservative politicians, including Doherty, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, were raising the alarm about a March 8 statement from the Prince George RCMP that drugs prescribed under safer supply programs were being diverted and resold by organized crime groups.

But three days later John Brewer, the assistant RCMP commissioner in B.C., refuted that claim, saying “there is currently no evidence to support a widespread diversion of safer supply drugs in the illicit market in B.C. or Canada.”

Doherty’s staff told The Tyee the MP would not do an interview about his social media post or whether he knew about the criminal charges against Dahlgren.

Those charges are related “to multiple incidents of theft and misuse of his official position as a homeless services specialist for the City of Gresham,” according to the Multnomah County District Attorney. Gresham is a suburb of Portland.

Dahlgren has pleaded not guilty, according to news reports.

Blyth said it’s important to understand that the scene shown in the video was not a safe injection site or an overdose prevention site, where people who use drugs can quickly get medical attention to reverse an overdose.

Insite, Canada’s oldest safe injection site, is staffed by nurses, while overdose prevention sites are generally staffed by workers who are trained to reverse overdoses and provide other types of support, like wound care for infected limbs.

Because opening a safe injection site involves bureaucratic hurdles and takes a long time, Blyth and other activists started running overdose prevention sites in 2016 as the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl was causing a sharp rise in fatal overdoses.

While overdose prevention sites initially operated illegally, the B.C. government quickly recognized they were needed to save lives and moved to sanction them.

The Tyee was not able to verify which shelter Dahlgren’s video depicts.

When The Tyee contacted PHS Community Services Society, the operator of several Downtown Eastside shelters as well as the safe injection site InSite, staff declined to comment, saying the video was “rage farming” and the organization did not want to give Dahlgren more publicity.

The Tyee was also unable to verify when the video that was posted on X on March 10 was actually filmed. Dylan Lerch, the police detective in charge of the identify theft case, said Dahlgren is known to recycle his video clips. He is supposed to have surrendered his passport since the charges were approved in October 2023, so he shouldn’t be able to travel to Canada, Lerch told The Tyee.

While Dahlgren acknowledged in a followup post that he’s been told he filmed a homeless shelter, not a safe injection site, his original March 10 post remains on X. The followup post with the correction received 3,600 impressions, while the original post received 331,000.

The Tyee reached out to Dahlgren through his X and Instagram accounts but did not hear back by publication time.

Dahlgren previously worked with a YouTuber called Tyler Oliveira to make a documentary-style video about drug policy in Vancouver that was posted on Nov. 2. Similar footage from a homeless shelter — again misidentified as a safe injection site — also appears in that video, titled “I Investigated the Country Where Every Drug Is Legal.” (Many drugs continue to be illegal to possess or sell in Canada.)

Oliveira’s YouTube page is filled with documentary-style videos with titles like “I Investigated NYC’s Illegal Immigrant Invasion,” “I Investigated the City That Pays You to do Drugs” and “I Investigated the City That Burns Homeless People Alive,” each with over one million views.

Videos posted to his Instagram account, where he has over 300,000 followers, focus on issues like illegal immigration, crime in cities, homelessness and drug use in impoverished regions of the United States.

Blyth and other advocates have called these types of videos “poverty tourism” and say they’re harmful to vulnerable communities.

Filmmaker Nathaniel Canuel made a video critiquing the harm done by exploiting vulnerable people.

Elenore Sturko, a BC United MLA who was interviewed by Dahlgren, appears in the video about Vancouver made by Dahlgren and Oliveira. Repeatedly using footage of people incapacitated by drugs, the video takes aim at policies like decriminalization of the possession of small amounts of drugs, blaming those policies for rampant drug use in the Downtown Eastside.

But after the video appeared on YouTube, Sturko distanced herself from the pair of video-makers.

“I currently appear in a YouTube video that I believe is inaccurate and exploitative. I can confirm that I did not agree to participate in the video and was recorded by the filmmakers without my consent,” she wrote in a social media post. “Although I stand by my own comments, I do not agree with characterizations of B.C. made in the video nor the premise of ambushing people on the street as clickbait.”

In response, Oliveira called Sturko “spineless.”

According to news reports from Oregon, Dahlgren is a former homeless shelter worker who was hired by the City of Gresham in 2018 as a homeless services specialist.

Dahlgren also became a prolific poster on social media, making videos of homeless people being interviewed about their lives — but also using those videos to share his views that low-barrier housing and permissive drug policies were hurting, not helping, homeless people. He has frequently asked for donations to support his work.

A woman looks purposely to her to left. She is beside a chain-link fence, wearing a toque, black hoodie and bright blue jacket.
Sarah Blyth at one of the Overdose Prevention Society’s previous locations on East Hastings Street in Vancouver. Blyth says she’s dismayed to see misinformation about safe drug consumption sites spreading online in a deadly overdose crisis. Photo by Rafal Gerszak.

Blyth has tried to push back against the misinformation in Dahlgren and Oliveira’s video. She made her own TikTok post and appeared in a video made by local filmmaker Nathaniel Canuel that tried to raise awareness of the harms done by filming people in distress without their consent.

Blyth said she’s open to having a conversation with any politician to talk about solutions to the overdose crisis and said she doesn’t see harm reduction as being in opposition to recovery.

Blyth said her staff frequently refer people who use the overdose prevention site to drug treatment programs.

But Blyth acknowledged the current trend in politics is to focus on stoking outrage.

“It’s the style of politics [now] to be dramatic and crazy... without real concern for the people that are suffering the most,” Blyth said. “We really could use some leadership to come together to try to find solutions for people.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Rights + Justice

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