By Joseph Mathieu
Photos by Fangliang Xu

Each year, Recovery Day Ottawa (RDO) celebrates the pathways people follow to recovery from substance use, fosters hope for those still suffering, reduces the barriers of stigma, engages the broader community and builds a platform for dialogue among existing services.

Carleton University President Benoit-Antoine Bacon was master of ceremonies at a lunch-time rally on Friday, Sept. 13, 2019 to promote the RDO mandate and introduce people who shared their personal journeys to recovery.

Carleton Reduces Stigma at Recovery Day Ottawa

Carleton University President Benoit-Antoine Bacon speaks at Recovery Day Ottawa.

Bacon introduced himself as a professor of psychology, a university president and a person in recovery. “As some of you will know, it’s possible to make progress alone, but it’s so much easier when you have the right help along the way, coming at the right time, as I did,” he said.

“Substance use is such a complex issue that’s so often oversimplified and judged so harshly,” said Bacon.

“But the reality is that in most cases—in almost all cases—the story of substance use starts with trauma, often multi-generational trauma, and personal struggles.”

Bacon introduced many speakers, including MPP Robin Martin, Ottawa Councillor Keith Egli and Mayor Jim Watson, who touched on government recovery programs.

Since 2012, Recovery Day events have taken place across Canada each September. Ottawa’s sixth annual RDO was organized by the Community Addictions Peer Support Association (CAPSA), which works to reduce barriers to resources and services. About 50 community partners were on site to promote these shared efforts.

Carleton Reduces Stigma at Recovery Day Ottawa

Dismantling Stigmas Around
Addiction and Substance Use

Earlier in the day, Kim Hellemans, chair of Carleton’s Neuroscience Department, participated in a workshop aimed at dismantling stigmas around addiction and substance use. Hellemans’s talk, titled “Stigma, Addiction, and the Brain,” used a neuroscience lens to explain how problematic substance use is a symptom of something else, typically, post-traumatic stress disorder or some other mental health condition.

The event also featured Carleton alumnus Jeff Copenace, an Anishinaabe advocate for sobriety, mental wellness and healing from Canada’s legacy of residential schools.

Copenace has been a political adviser and consultant for the Prime Minister’s Office, the Assembly of First Nations, Ottawa Senators and the Grand Council of Treaty #3. He read a poem he wrote to chronicle some of his own struggles with substance use, sharing his feelings of shame and confusion, and the realizations that led to his recovery.

Carleton Reduces Stigma at Recovery Day Ottawa

Ottawa Mayor Jim Waston speaks at Recovery Day Ottawa.

In a final verse, Copenace said he was 908 days sober and the crowd cheered. “For our people out there: Don’t give up,” he said. “Don’t give up. We love you. We’re here for you.”

At one of the 50 booths promoting support for everyone in need, Carleton staff and students discussed various tools the university offers.

“We’re taking a holistic approach,” said Bacon.

“At Carleton, we have over 25 distinct initiatives to help students, faculty and staff on the whole mental health and substance use spectrum.”

Isabel Mertick-Sykes and Olivia Turner, two fourth-year neuroscience and mental health students at Carleton, promoted #StigmaEndsAtCU. They created the barrier-breaking campaign with two classmates and help and direction from Hellemans.

Launched last spring, the campaign shares personal stories of substance use and shines a light on stigmatizing language that makes it difficult for people to ask for help. The initiative also points out many neuroscience facts about how addiction isn’t a choice, it’s a disease, just like diabetes or Alzheimer’s.

“If it’s not safe to say that we struggle then, by definition, it’s not safe to seek help,” said Bacon.

“There’s still tremendous stigma attached to substance use and the only way to break the stigma is to speak out and tell the truth.”

Carleton Reduces Stigma at Recovery Day Ottawa

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