Don’t shoot the messenger

You know something is wrong when a government worker who spends her own time and money to help the territory's needy, while addressing a long-known shortfall in the government's own services, is quickly shown the exit.

You know something is wrong when a government worker who spends her own time and money to help the territory’s needy, while addressing a long-known shortfall in the government’s own services, is quickly shown the exit.

This appears to be what has happened to Dana Kistemaker, a drug and alcohol prevention worker who abruptly departed from her job this week. She won’t comment on the situation upon the advice of her lawyer, while the territory is of course also staying mum.

What happened? We honestly don’t know, but besides possessing an admirable commitment to helping addicts straighten themselves out, Kistemaker also has a habit of speaking the truth. In case you didn’t know, that can be a liability if you work in government.

She and a colleague have taken it upon themselves to establish a group home for Yukoners who have completed a 28-day addictions treatment program and want to stay clean. Too often, residents complete treatment only to fall back upon their old, destructive habits.

“The government has seen that there’s a need for the past 20 years, and they’ve done nothing about it,” Kistemaker told the News earlier this week. “To just wait for the government to do something – you can be waiting forever.”

There could be other explanations for her departure, including potential conflict of interests between her work and volunteer activities. But it’s easy to imagine how a thin-skinned bureaucrat or politician would see that statement as an affront.

What she says also happens to be true. Government workers have known about this problem for a long time, and they’ve done little about it. Blaming Kistemaker would simply be shooting the messenger.

Her statement probably carried extra sting because it followed an announcement by Health Minister Doug Graham about ongoing plans to replace the aging Sarah Steele building, which currently houses the detox centre and treatment program. Once a new centre is built, Graham is promising that treatment will be available more frequently than every few months, youth will be admitted, and some kind of transitional housing will be available for clients who have completed a program.

Sounds great, but you’ll have to excuse us if we share Kistemaker’s skepticism about how quickly this will all come about.

Perhaps Graham feels that he’s been upstaged by a departmental underling and this has played into Kistemaker’s departure. It would be a shame if that were the case, because Kistemaker’s non-profit is, believe it or not, something that the Yukon Party could actually throw its support behind.

The Whitehorse Yukon Safer Housing Society aims to provide a sober living environment to residents who have completed an addictions treatment program. Residents are expected to help with chores, pay their share of the bills, and most importantly, stay clean. Residents support each other and make decisions democratically.

The home is based on the Oxford House model, which started in 1975 in Montgomery County, Maryland, when the county shuttered one of its halfway houses and 13 residents decided to rent a building and run it themselves.

Chapters began opening in Alberta in 1994, and today, it’s estimated that there are more than 1,500 Oxford Houses in the United States, and more than 50 in Canada.

The Yukon Party government has long been reluctant to embrace anything too big or visionary when it comes to helping residents struggling with addiction. Most notably, it condemned to never-ending bureaucratic review the plans of one non-profit to establish a supportive housing project for hardcore alcoholics.

Controversially, that project would allow residents to drink in their rooms, based on the reasoning that it’s easier to dry out with a roof over your head. A growing body of research supports this idea, and cities like Seattle have found that such projects have actually saved public funds by easing pressure on police, ambulances and emergency rooms. But the Yukon Party’s conservative base is often suspicious about providing unqualified help to the needy.

No worry here. The Oxford House model requires little government support, while emphasizing individual responsibility. Yukon Party politicians already support Habitat for Humanity for similar reasons. They’d be smart to see a chance to bolster their lacklustre record of addressing addiction – a file that has prompted calls to action by Whitehorse’s chamber of commerce and the Yukon Medical Association, among others.

Kistemaker’s project has already secured a house, but government funds would help it to hire a staff person to help co-ordinate evening and weekend programming. Both Ottawa and the Government of Alberta already support similar schemes. Why not the Yukon?

We’d hate to think that Graham and his cabinet colleagues would turn up their noses at such an opportunity simply because of a bit of brusque honesty on Kistemaker’s part. That would be petty and shortsighted.

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