British Columbia

New addictions recovery centre for women opening in Port Alberni

The model will allow residents to stay on a farm site for months to years to help them manage their addiction.

The centre's program is based on an addiction treatment model pioneered in Italy

Those seeking treatment for substance use problems will stay at Shelter Farm in Port Alberni in an addictions recovery program based on an Italian model. (Shelter Farm/Facebook)

A new addictions recovery centre for women that promises a long-term treatment program is set to open on Vancouver Island in the next few weeks.

Port Alberni will be home to B.C.'s newest therapeutic community, modelled on a famous program started in Rimini, Italy in the 1970s. 

Former Port Alberni mayor John Douglas is one of the forces behind the project. Douglas says his work as a paramedic in Vancouver, as a politician, and then his work with the Port Alberni Shelter Society (PASS) inspired him to find more long-term solutions for recovery.

"Western medicine seems to think we just take a treatment and we're all better. It just doesn't work that way in terms of substance use. And it takes a long time. We need people to start thinking in that way," Douglas said to host Gregor Craigie on CBC's On The Island. 

Over 7,760 British Columbians have died from illicit drugs during B.C.'s overdose crisis since it was declared a public health emergency in 2016.

Inspired by San Patrignano

Douglas travelled to Portugal — which decriminalized the possession for use of all drugs — and then to San Patrignano in Italy, which pioneered the therapeutic community model for substance use recovery.

Though the community — in particular, its founder — has attracted detractors, it is considered to be one of the more successful residential drug treatment models. 

Douglas says the therapeutic community model allows those seeking treatment for substance use to spend years working on their recovery. The residential program is free and program attendees will be paired with a mentor who has faced similar challenges. 

"[You're] working with people who have been in your shoes and have made it through, and are making it through their challenges with substance use. So, the person entering that program has a lot more respect and listening capability to the mentor," Douglas said. 

The final pillar is that attendees are expected to take up some kind of work and daily routine. The Port Alberni centre is on a 173-acre agricultural property, so much of the work will be based around the farm site. 

"We'll be working [on] agriculture for the most part in the beginning, but also things like landscaping, horticulture, maintaining peoples' yards, building fences," Douglas said. 

But in other models, Douglas said, attendees have gone on to do work like carpentry, woodwork, and metal work as well as raising livestock. 

"In Italy, they spend a lot of time creating olive oil and olive oil products [and] skin care products," he said. 

6 participants to start

Douglas says the first cohort to live on the farm will be deliberately small: just six women.

"We're hoping to expand that in the years to come to embrace all genders and to embrace families and children as well," he said.

The first three years are being supported by funding from the federal and provincial governments. Additional support from the local Port Alberni community and philanthropists from Victoria and Vancouver have also helped.

"The big challenge is to change our mindset [about recovery]," said Douglas.

"It's not going to take four weeks or six weeks. It's probably going to take a couple of years."

With files from On The Island