Cape Breton man hopes new organization will help reduce stigma faced by drug users like him

·4 min read
Mark LeBlanc, a former nurse who has been addicted for 18 years, says people who use drugs are often stigmatized and it can keep them from getting proper health care. (Tom Ayers/CBC - image credit)
Mark LeBlanc, a former nurse who has been addicted for 18 years, says people who use drugs are often stigmatized and it can keep them from getting proper health care. (Tom Ayers/CBC - image credit)

A Cape Breton man says he hopes a new organization will help reduce the stigma faced by people like him who use illicit drugs.

Mark LeBlanc, a former nurse who has been addicted for 18 years, said the main problem he faces comes from health-care workers.

"It's really, really obvious when health-care staff ... learn or already know that you're a person who's addicted, you definitely feel the difference in the way you're treated," he said Thursday.

LeBlanc spoke at an open house for the launch of a new project by the Cape Breton Association of People Empowering Drug Users, or CAPED. "Being someone who worked in health care, I think the stigma really jumps out at me."

LeBlanc has spent time in a federal prison — and been in and out of hospitals as a result of his habit.

He said his wife died last year in hospital due to drug use. He was initially allowed to visit as her next of kin, but other family intervened and LeBlanc was barred from going in.

'Treated less than human'

LeBlanc said he knew his wife was dying, so he asked a nurse to deliver a chain with a pendant to her.

"I said, 'If you're not going to allow me to go in, can you please take this and put it on her wrist' ... and the charge nurse said to me, 'I'm not taking anything from you, you dirtbag.'"

LeBlanc recalls another time when a nurse showed contempt for him as a drug user, something he said is common.

"She kind of like sighed in disgust and she said, 'You people really bother me' and I said, 'You people? Sorry?'

"Only a few months prior to that, I was wearing the same name tag she was, working on a different floor in the hospital. You feel like you're being treated less than human."

People actively using drugs when admitted to hospital — even for something unrelated to drug use — need access to safe injection equipment while in hospital, LeBlanc said.

He has been in that situation and has resorted to scavenging supplies out of a used sharps container, something that LeBlanc said he knows is risky, but he thought he had little choice.

'I couldn't ask my nurse'

"If I didn't have what I needed, as far as equipment — clean, sterile equipment — I couldn't ask my nurse, 'May I have these?'" he said.

As a nurse, LeBlanc said he received a little training around mental health and addictions, but nothing about how to treat users with compassion.

That's something the nursing profession could address that would help reduce the harm from stigma.

"If something's not done as far as change and educating them about addiction and issues related, then I don't see things getting any better," LeBlanc said.

Matthew Moore/CBC
Matthew Moore/CBC

CAPED opened a new office this week at 196 Kings Road in Sydney, at the back of the Dr. Yavari Health Centre.

The group is run by people with lived experience. They say people who use drugs often face barriers to things like housing, employment and health care.

CAPED is funded by Health Canada to run a program called Undoing the Harm of Stigmatization and Criminalization of People Who Use Drugs and People With Lived or Living Experience in Cape Breton Regional Municipality.

Tom Ayers/CBC
Tom Ayers/CBC

Giulia DiGiorgio, the organization's executive director, said the illicit drug supply is often toxic and it kills someone every 80 minutes in Canada.

She said CAPED wants people to have access to a safe supply without being persecuted and denied essential services.

"We're trying to undo that by just sharing that we are normal people, that if we were provided the basic needs of life and supports and access to services just like everybody else and opportunities and not be criminalized, we could do great things," DiGiorgio said.

"Because we're shunned by our community and services that are there to serve us, we can't get back on our feet."

Tom Ayers/CBC
Tom Ayers/CBC

CAPED also plans to advocate for change in government and public policy.

"I think a lot of the barriers that substance users face within all of our systems comes down to stigma and discrimination, so I think if we challenge that head on, it would change a lot of attitudes and hopefully make things better for people," said Shawn Murray, chair of the CAPED board of directors.

LeBlanc said reducing all of the harms from stigmatization is a tall order and he is not optimistic that things will change soon, but he is glad someone is trying.

"Doing nothing about it is definitely not going to help it, but with people like Giulia and this organization, I think it's a great start," he said.

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