Harm reduction is any action that is taken to lessen or remove the risks that come with substance use and other behaviours. Wearing a seatbelt, drinking in bars and restaurants (which provide access to regulated alcohol and are required to prevent overconsumption), using government-regulated marijuana (to avoid the dangers of illegally produced marijuana such as contamination), and wearing a helmet, are all activities that fit this definition.
However, many harm reduction activists, academics, and policy-makers in Canada focus predominantly on things like substance use and addiction. This focus is mainly because — other than abstinence and legal punishment — there aren’t many harm reduction programs for drug users. Harm reduction advocacy groups like Moms Stop the Harm call for government programs such as safe-consumption sites and safe supply (regulated supply of drugs like heroin).
According to the Alberta Government’s substance use surveillance system, between January and August 2021, 378 people in Edmonton died from drug poisonings. This toll includes over- doses and deaths from drugs laced with things like fentanyl.
Through education, advocacy, research, and potential programs such as distributing naloxone (medicine that reverses opioid overdoses), many people at MacEwan University have worked, and continue to work, on reducing the harm that can come with substance use.
The history of harm reduction at MacEwan University is plentiful. Based on principles — rather than terminology — harm reduction at MacEwan likely originates in the School of Social Work according to the school’s current director, Dr. Erin Gray.
“When we look at those principles that contribute to our understanding of harm reduction, social work has always been about that. Social work has always been about social justice, self-determination (and), respecting the inherent integrity and worth of all people,” Dr. Gray explained. The University’s website states that a two-year diploma in Social Work has been offered since the institution was established in 1971.
Peter Smyth and Arlene Eaton-Erickson, two social work faculty members at MacEwan, were involved in founding the Old Strathcona Youth Society (OSYS) in 1998, well before each started teaching at MacEwan. Among other things, OSYS is a harm reduction hub for youth in Edmonton; they can access a needle exchange program, various forms of birth control, and additional harm reduction information.
In the School of Social Work, students now learn about harm reduction as one of many professional practice frameworks to use in situations they may face as a social worker. According to Sydney Berger, a 2020 graduate of the program, harm reduction is “taught as supplemental theory or a supplemental inter-
vention or practice strategy that is effective.”
In 2014, harm reduction at MacEwan changed dramatically. Petra Schulz, a nursing and community health faculty member since 2001, lost her son Danny to an accidental fentanyl overdose.
“I knew nothing about harm reduction before he died,” Schulz explained. “When I realized how preventable his death was, and how little I knew about it, I felt strongly that that information needed to be shared.”
In the years following her son’s death, Schulz’s advocacy for harm reduction started making headlines, and she started sharing Danny’s story with her students.
“When I give my presentations, I always give my personal story,” she said. “When you open somebody’s heart, when they’re listening to you with empathy, their mind is also open to the facts and the science you are presenting.”
“When people learn these important principles like harm reduction and how to embrace it and how to put it into practice, it has a profound and lasting impact over the person’s career,” Schulz explained.
“When I talk to one nursing student, I can probably make a difference for 40 years to come for people that student may interact with, and that really is a strong motivator.”
In 2016, Schulz co-founded Moms Stop the Harm, an advocacy effort by three mothers who lost a child to substance use issues and mental health challenges. Moms Stop the Harm has since grown to include hundreds of families in their network. The group’s advocacy focuses on changing drug policy on a provincial and federal level.
In February of 2017, MacEwan University hosted a panel presentation about harm reduction and the opioid crisis. Two of the featured panellists were MacEwan faculty members — Petra Schulz and Holly Symonds-Brown.
Another panellist for the event was Marliss Taylor, the program manager for Streetworks, an organization that operates multiple needle exchange sites in Edmonton and a street outreach team.
As a followup to the event, Streetworks, Petra Schulz, and other MacEwan staff organized naloxone training sessions on campus. Over the past four years, hundreds of students and security personnel have learned how to administer naloxone.
In 2018, Sydney Bennell and Sarah Stone formed the Coalition for Harm Reduction at MacEwan (CHARM). Bennell, a registered nurse, and Stone, a registered social worker, work for the University’s Wellness and Psychological Services department.
CHARM is a community coalition that focuses on harm reduction education and awareness. The coalition comprises 14 members, and each represents a group or organization considered a stakeholder in the community. The Alberta Liquor and Gaming Commission (AGLC), SAMU, Streetworks, Alberta Health Services (AHS), MacEwan residence, the student body, and more are represented in the coalition.
Bennell and Stone serve as co-chairs for CHARM. For Bennell, the “major successes are around those harm reduction resource fairs where we highlight a variety of different services and resources that people can access.”
Over the past three years, CHARM has organized naloxone training, hosted webinars, and supported other harm reduction initiatives on campus. Looking into the future, CHARM plans for more in-person activities such as a harm reduction resource fair during Mental Health Week in January 2022.
In January 2019, a handful of students formed the Harm Reduction Club. Although the club was only active for one year, they hosted multiple events, including a jam session and a resource fair where students could find harm reduction information.
The club’s harm reduction philosophy focused on things such as sexual health and safe alcohol consumption. Kailey Peckford, the Vice President of the club for one semester, explained that they targeted “university students in particular and the different axis of well-being that impact them.”
Peckford, now a master’s student at the University of British Columbia, said that, “increasing awareness about harm reduction is really important and also understanding that harm reduction is never about abstinence, it’s just about engaging with these things in a safe way.”
In March 2019, Petra Schulz gave a presentation as part of the TEDxMacEwanU series. During her presentation, Petra called for five specific changes in drug policy: safe and regulated supply of drugs to prevent poisonings, decriminalization of personal possession of drugs, harm reduction services, “access to
evidence-based treatment,” and “upstream prevention by addressing the underlying conditions (of substance use) such as mental health and trauma.”
In October 2019, the Peer Health Education Team and CHARM hosted the “Halloween Harm Reduction Event.” Sydney Bennell explained that the intention was to provide students with information about “safer partying strategies.”
For Dr. Erin Gray, 2019 was a prolific year for research. She co-authored three articles about Managed Alcohol Programs (MAPs) and their importance as a harm reduction program.
Despite the COVID pandemic, MacEwan’s branch of The FentaNIL Project (TFP) was formed by Haley Calder over the summer of 2020 TFP was initially started at the University of Alberta in 2018 by student Mason Schindle. TFP’s website states that, “through advocacy, outreach, education, and research,
we strive to play an active role in tangibly blunting the effects of the ongoing overdose crisis in Canada.”
Calder explained that MacEwan’s branch of TFP had a rough beginning — besides the pandemic, Calder was hospitalized in the fall of 2020 after catching meningitis.
TFP at MacEwan initially focused on establishing a social media presence by sharing harm reduction information online. Then, in April 2021, every branch of TFP worked together to organize an online panel discussion about isolation and the opioid crisis. Calder also spoke on the panel and shared some of her experiences with opioids as she was prescribed them for chronic pain nearly four years ago.
“While I never developed an addiction, it was always a battle between chronic pain and feeling normal, with opioids being right in the middle,” Calder said. “I wanted to explain how it really could be anyone who’s affected.”
The executive team behind the TFP at MacEwan are currently planning another panel discussion, organizing more naloxone training on campus, and trying to register the University as a “community-based naloxone distribution site” as part of AHS’ Community-Based Naloxone Program. If MacEwan were to register as a distribution site, the University would be able to distribute naloxone kits on campus.
The history of harm reduction at MacEwan University is diverse and detailed. With the devotion of people like Petra Schulz, Haley Calder, Sydney Bennell, Sarah Stone, Dr. Erin Gray, Peter Smyth, Arlene Eaton-Erickson, and many more, the future of harm reduction is filled with possibilities.
It’s safe to say that MacEwan University won’t solve issues like the opioid crisis. Still, as part of its official Mandate, which can be read on the school’s website, MacEwan University states it will “ensure that students develop the background to engage fully the … social challenges of a changing world.”
The harm reduction movement on campus is just one way that MacEwan University students are provided, and provide themselves, the knowledge to face the social challenges that exist outside — and inside — campus doors.