‘This is where I’m going to be if I don’t change’

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VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. – Fifteen aboriginal youths and their adult chaperones recently participated in a 48-hour Scared Straight Tour. The youths visited Vancouver’s infamous Downtown Eastside and saw firsthand the effects of drug addiction and homelessness.

The majority of people there are drug dealers, drug addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes, homeless people and those afflicted with mental illness. According to Scared Straight Tour creator Pierre Morais, groups of kids are often greeted by residents who tell them, “Welcome to hell.”

The tour is the brainchild of Morais, a mental health and addictions counselor who believed that seeing the real-life effects of addiction and homelessness would be the strongest defense in protecting the livelihood of today’s youth. “I have been an addictions counselor for about 10 years now; it’s pretty hard, once someone gets addicted, to get to the point where they’re healthy again. I was looking for a way to prevent people from getting to that point.

“I have been living around Vancouver for the last several years; [Downtown Eastside] has the reputation of being the worst Skid Row in North America. Within a few blocks, there are 10,000 addicts and 3,000 homeless people. There is a lot to be seen in the small concentrated area. I’ve walked through there a few times and thought it would be a powerful experience to bring kids through the Downtown Eastside to see it for themselves.”

Morais started talking to various organizations that would be interested in supporting his program. The Salvation Army jumped on board. “The Salvation Army was great, and they’ve been a big part of this program, and I’ve been taking kids on the tour for a couple of years now.”

The youths that most recently attended the tour were from the Gitanmaax Band, whose reservation is located in the heart of the Gitksan territories in west-central British Columbia.

Dennette Green, the band’s youth coordinator, worked to create this recent tour and was one of the chaperones. Green agreed with Morais that the tour could truly promote change among aboriginal youth. She recalled the powerful imagery and intensity of the experience.

“It’s really rough. It’s the poorest place in Canada. It is filled with homeless people and addicts. There was this huge park [Oppenheimer Park] with homeless people; they had tents set up like it was a campground and people were sleeping in boxes. We talked to street workers and prostitutes, drug addicts. We saw people shooting up; it was amazing what we saw. The kids were terrified.”

“One story that we heard, this lady was from Prince George and moved to Vancouver when she was 19 years old. Within two months of living there she got caught up in the wrong crowd. And she ended up living on Skid Row. She is now 32 years old. She has been there for a while. Once you get sucked in to the powerful use of drugs, there is a slim chance that you will ever get out.”

Morais also talked about the tour in relation to the aboriginal aspects. “The bulk of the kids that we bring on these tours are aboriginal because the bands have a much easier time organizing the kids to go on a tour.”

The aboriginal population in Downtown Eastside, as in many other places in which there are difficulties, is overrepresented. “Even though the aboriginal population in Canada is only 5 percent, they make up about 30 percent of the people in jails and in Downtown Eastside,” Morais explained. “It’s not because they’re bad people; it is because of the social problems as a result of colonization.”

He also expressed his opinion as to the overrepresentation of aboriginal people suffering from addiction. “They don’t have the same kind of tolerance to alcohol as white people do. White people have been drinking alcohol for thousands of years, and they have a tolerance or somewhat of an immunity. And Native people in North America have only been drinking alcohol for a few hundred years. They haven’t developed the same kinds of resistance for alcohol as white people have.”

The complete tour takes place over a 48-hour period, during which the youths are exposed to the harsh realities of drug addiction and alcohol abuse. They stay the night in a shelter and listen to presentations and speeches by homeless people.

Green considered the tour a success; she recalled the end of the program which included a discussion group. “We had a discussion and a talking circle. And we got to share what we felt and how it touched us and what we learned. That day was so emotional that the tough kids were breaking down, because they said, ‘I could see myself here, this is where I’m going to be if I don’t change.’”

Green hopes to have a group attend this tour every year. “They didn’t have the money to do it until this year – it’s $250 per youth and $75 per adult chaperone. We are going to try and make it an annual event – so next year we are hoping to do it again.”

For more information on this program, visit www.scaredstraighttour.com or call (867) 695-3012. To sponsor a youth from the Gitanmaax Band, call Dennette Green at (250) 842-6701.