British Columbia

Downtown Eastside tour operator shuts down after 'poverty tourism' criticism

An addictions speaker who was charging upwards of $350 for tours of the Downtown Eastside has scrapped all forthcoming tours after coming under scrutiny for his claims and methods.

Prominent organizations say operator’s claims they endorsed the program are false

People cross East Hastings street in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. A tour operator has shut down tours of the area after intense criticism. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

An addictions speaker who was charging upwards of $350 for tours of the Downtown Eastside has scrapped all forthcoming tours after coming under scrutiny for his claims and methods.

The Scared Straight Tour, which organizer Pierre Morais says he has been running since 2004, promised a "reality check" for at-risk youth through a tour of the area, considered the epicentre of the drug poisoning crisis in Canada.

However, the tour came under increasing fire from critics on social media for resembling "poverty tourism" and for claiming institutional endorsements that never existed.

The most prominent of these alleged endorsements were those of the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and the Vancouver Police Department, both of whom denied any affiliation with Scared Straight.

Morais claims his tours have educated "thousands of youth" about the dangers of drug use. He said in a statement to CBC News, "We remain proud of the work we have done over the past 20 years."

In his since-deleted website bio, he said he is a recovered addict who has a master's degree in counselling psychology and has won more than 10 awards for his work.

CBC News was unable to independently verify Morais's credentials or claims, and he did not provide any clarification when asked for comment.

The Scared Straight Tour website has now been scrubbed of all of its content, including a $1,500 yearly virtual membership program and offerings of "on-site presentations," which cost $1,500 per day and cover topics including gang life and the dangers of fentanyl.

The tour's website also had testimonials, purporting to be from program attendees.

'Fear-based approaches are incredibly dehumanizing'

Though Scared Straight had been around for 15 years, its website started drawing attention late last week for language that stigmatizes those who use drugs.

This includes phrases highlighted on social media like "drug-infested ghetto" and "hardcore drug addicts."

Fiona York, a community advocate in the Downtown Eastside, says the tour did not benefit from lived experiences and resembled a "voyeuristic" outside perspective.

"Somebody is making a profit from the trauma, the history of people in the Downtown Eastside, without giving back in any way," she said.

"One of the things in the Downtown Eastside is, 'Nothing about us without us.' So the whole concept of poverty tourism, and this type of tour, is really antithetical to that."

Morais did not respond to questions from CBC News regarding the for-profit nature of the tour and whether the community received any proceeds.

"These 'scared straight' or fear-based approaches are incredibly dehumanizing towards people who use drugs," says Danya Fast, a research scientist at the B.C. Centre on Substance Use. "So they're problematic on those grounds, but I think they're also incredibly ineffective."

A sign in the Downtown Eastside. Danya Fast says community approaches are more effective than ones based on fear for youths at risk of substance abuse. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Fast's research shows that youth at risk of substance use often grow up around it and are driven by fears about the future. 

"When we add more fear onto that, by doing something like these tours ... we can actually deepen those fears and anxieties," she said.

Fast says a far more effective approach would be to have meaningful conversations with youth involving family, caregivers and practitioners.

While family members were invited on Scared Straight tours (at the cost of $150 per person), they were meant to serve as chaperones while the program focused on the youth attendees.

Testimonials and endorsements found lacking

A sample agenda, since deleted from the Scared Straight Tour website, advertises a stay at a downtown hotel and meetings with "addicts" who are in recovery over a 36-hour period.

One of the agenda items includes a presentation by "Odd Squad police officers."

The Odd Squad, an independent production company created by ex-Vancouver Police Department officers, confirmed they were involved in the program up until two years ago.

Meanwhile, the Vancouver Police Department says it is not associated with the tour "in any way."

City workers clean East Hastings Street in the Downtown Eastside. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The Canadian Centre on Substance Use was also featured prominently on the Scared Straight Tour website. However, the CCSA said it made the website's operator take that endorsement down.

"CCSA did not have any knowledge or awareness of this tour and its intended purpose. To be clear, CCSA does not now, [nor] has it ever endorsed The Scared Straight Tour," said a CCSA spokesperson.

Another aspect of the Scared Straight tour's website — the testimonials purportedly from tour attendees — did not stand up to scrutiny.

The two testimonials that were featured on the front page claimed to be from a mother in Pennsylvania, Meredith F., and a principal from Oak Ridge High School, James Stapley.

A rose in memory of those lost to the opioid crisis at the intersection of East Hastings and Main streets. The Downtown Eastside is the epicentre of the country's drug poisoning crisis. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

However, the two images on the website claiming to depict these attendees are, respectively, a still taken from a reaction GIF and a photo of a different principal from New Zealand.

Morais did not respond to questions from CBC News about why he scrubbed his website or whether tours will resume at any point.

With files from Joel Ballard