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ON TRACK progam misses the mark

I woke up on Sunday morning and turned on the radio. The CBC was broadcasting a story about the Odd Squad’s ON TRACK program.  Forty grade ten students from across the Lower Mainland were selected to take part in a one-day interactive workshop with volunteer officers from the Vancouver Police Department and Odd Squad Productions Society, a non-profit organization that provides "prevention education" for youth. The officer quoted in the story explained that the real focus of the program was getting teens to make good choices. The Odd Squad’s press release lays out the philosophy pretty clearly:

“ON TRACK exposes participants to the harsh realities of drug use, addiction, and criminal lifestyle through interactions with police officers and street-entrenched people. Youth walk away educated with lifelong lessons that enable them to mentor their peers through school presentations about the realities they have learned.”

Youth who were selected to participate in the program are asked to take what they learned about law enforcement practice (including demonstrations by the dog squad) and the dangers of drugs (including a walk through the allies of the Downtown Eastside with police officers) and bring that back to their peers. Several young participants suggested that teenagers are more likely to “hear” a message from their peers than from an adult.

 For a clearer sense of how the day-long workshop unfolds, take a look at this clip from CBC television or the Odd Squad's video about the program.

I understand the impetus behind this program and why parents might want their children to take part in it, either as participants or by sitting in on a peer-lead session at their school. It is hard to imagine anything more terrifying than losing your child to deep addiction, the criminal justice system or a violent death. However, there are three key assumptions imbedded in philosophy of the ON TRACK program that leave me feeling, as a parent of teens who also lives and works in the Downtown Eastside, that this not the right way to engage kids in discussions about drugs and addiction.

This program is founded on a narrative that treats drug use and addiction as two sides of the same coin and conceptualizes the road to addiction in terms of choices, lifestyle and behavioural issues (even if adults know that is not entirely the case, it would be sending kids mixed messages to tell them otherwise). The program relies on a simplistic dichotomy between the addict/criminal and the rest of us and is based on a belief that fear is the most powerful motivator in terms of decision-making among youth.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the program seeks to solve the parental challenge of talking about sensitive and complex issues like addiction with kids who don’t want to listen by off-loading the work to youth armed with a small amount of knowledge gained through a one-day workshop with police.

We need to find ways talk to our kids about hard topics like drug addiction, gang violence and the dangers of “criminal” lifestyles. We also have to recognize that this is hard and challenging work and that as adults we don’t have all the answers because they are not always straightforward or clear.

I have lived in the Downtown Eastside for more than ten years and have worked at Pivot for six of those years. I have raised children from toddlers to teenagers in the neighborhood, and everyday I still learn something new about the nature of addiction, about the impacts of living a “criminal” lifestyle, and about the possibility for change.  Luckily, there are resources that can offer guidance. Vancouver is home to one of the foremost thinkers on both addiction and on building relationships with our children that prepare them to build healthy lives.

The question of talking about addiction with our children and teens sits at the intersection of two components of Dr. Gabor Mate’s work. Dr. Mate’s approach to addiction is informed by decades of providing direct patient care to people in the Downtown Eastside living with profound addictions to substances, amongst other things. His writing on the subject suggests that the addiction narrative that is being communicated to the youth through the ON TRACK program misdiagnoses the core issues behind addiction.

He explains that our early experiences and attachments are at the core of susceptibility to addiction, be it to a substance, legal or illegal, an activity like gambling or shopping, or to other damaging behaviours or emotions. There are very clear reasons that people who have been ostracized as a result of their race, class or sexual orientation are vastly over-represented in the Downtown Eastside, as are those who have been impacted by the child welfare system. The “make the right choice” narrative demonizes people who will benefit most from compassion, and fails to teach young people to explore what is going on inside them when they feel compelled to do something they know has negative consequences. It also leads educators and parents to focus interventions with young people who are using substances in a problematic way by punishing the (mis)behaviour rather than exploring what is driving that behaviour.  He writes:

 “Emotionally, we are all addicted to negative behaviour for our short term gain, and spiritually, we marginalize the addict because we do not want to look at the mirror they are holding up to us. We fear the parts in ourselves we don't want to see."

Closely tied to this view of addiction is the key message of Dr. Mate and his co-author Dr. Gordon Neufeld’s work on parenting. They argue that at a societal level, we are perpetuating attachment issues with our children, even in the context of the “unbroken” middle class nuclear family, by focusing too much on correcting behaviour and not enough on building trusting relationships. We are also accepting and even actively encouraging our children and teens to look to their peer groups for their primary source of attachment, acceptance and value generation. The ON TRACK program is case in point.