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50 Stories Part 2: In the beginning… there were drugs

50 Stories Part 2: In the beginning… there were drugs

Pictured: The Drug Information Centre logo.

Read – 50 Stories Part 1

Distress Centre got its start in 1970 as the Drug Information Centre (DIC). It came to life at a time when psychedelic drugs and cannabis were emerging concerns, along with other street drugs, the misuse of legal drugs, and alcohol.

“Calgary was a sleepy town. In Vancouver, drugs had been around much longer. What I saw in Calgary was a panicked reaction from people who thought this sort of thing would never come to their community,” says Jan Skirrow, an original volunteer.

“We were faced with a real need in the community that no one was stepping in to do anything about,” says Ken Low, an early DIC proponent.

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In October 1969 Jack Colclough, a University of Calgary United Church Minister, convened a meeting of local social service organizations and stakeholders. The group agreed no agency in Calgary was providing factual, unbiased information on drugs. They thought that an emergency hotline was urgently needed, as well as a way of coordinating all programs aimed at drug education and treatment.

The aims of the DIC, as described by Don Bruce, Director, in a 1970 pamphlet, “Be a Centre Supporter.”

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) established a Coordinating Council on Drug Information to begin this work. By the second meeting, about 40 different groups were represented. The Calgary and Region Mental Health Planning Council had also set up a task force, which the Co-ordinating Council joined, thus creating a combined Drug Task Force.

Around the table were diverse philosophies. “Some felt we were enabling people to break the law and undermine good order and decorum in our communities” remembers Ken. Others believed the drug problem was moral and could be solved through prayer or simply required stronger willpower. A more humanistic model prevailed among the Advisory. The proposed DIC had 3 purposes: Information and Education, Crisis Intervention, and Research.

“One of the nice things about being in Calgary at that time was we had the luxury of being able to be naïve about what we could accomplish. We did good work. Vancouver was fiddling around with forced treatment in those days, committing people for use of drugs. ” says Jan.

The provincial cabinet was the responsible government party. The Drug Task Force and the Drug Advisory Council, who was responsible for policy and program implementation, became the Drug Information Centre (DIC). The provincial Alcohol and Drug Education Association was identified for monitoring the funding.

The Drug Information Centre opens its doors

The Centre opened on April 14, 1970, with $20,000 from the Department of Health. The weekly budget was $451.92. It was a day-to-day existence. A converted carpet store at 628 11 Ave S.W. was the DIC’s first home. A little phone booth had 3 or 4 phone lines. There was a kitchen and living room. It was too small, lacked storage, and didn’t have fire or liability insurance – but there was a nice stereo system for the volunteers. The monthly rent was $375, paid by Calgary Preventive Social Services.

A volunteer photo from the early 70s.

By phone or drop-in counselling, the DIC was set up to handle “bad trips or freak outs” as well as psychotic episodes resulting from drug delirium. The Drug Advisory Council wanted it to be a welcoming place for everyone to feel comfortable. They were careful about inadvertently setting up barriers to the very people they wanted to serve.

Don Bruce was lent from the provincial Division of Alcoholism to act as Director and Jack Oakley was borrowed from the Alcohol and Drug Education Association to act as Asst. Director.

Volunteer training was haphazard, with a strong focus on triage. “We tried to have information about what was out there, what were the normal effects, what were abnormal, when you might want to call an ambulance,” says Jan. “How do you deal with panicked parents who call about their child who is talking to the cat and thinks the cat is talking back to him?”

The headline from an article published on the DIC in December 1970.

Once trained, volunteers manned the phones 24/7, 365 days a year. The original volunteer group numbered 60, and there was a waiting list to join the team.

One volunteer had a unique role. “We used to send him out to the bars to go buy drugs, essentially LSD and hallucinogenics, and then we would pass them off to Stew to have analyzed,” recalls Emil Roessingh, who was the DIC’s first volunteer, and later hired as the second Volunteer Co-ordinator. “When we saw some relatively dangerous stuff coming in, we would be the first ones aware of it. We would try and spread the word not to buy the stuff.” This volunteer also helped dispel fear and paranoia in the public, sharing information about the DIC.

“We never had any issues with police at all, we all cooperated,” says Emil. “There were two lights on the front door. If the red light was on, police were advised not to come in. People on hallucinogenics were pretty paranoid, and even the idea of having the police in there would blow our image all to hell. The emergency wards in the hospitals also cooperated. They didn’t want all these people showing up in the emergency wards, stoned on acid.”

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Jan adds: “Our volunteers had to have some credibility with the medical people, if they ended up at Foothills Hospital. The doctors were not terribly inclined to pay any attention to a bunch of scruffy kids who looked like they probably came off the street, which they did. They had to be able to speak with knowledge and not downplay the potential seriousness of a really bad reaction to something.”

Staff in-service started in May 1970 and one of Ken’s jobs was building a resource library and distributing 9,000 copies of various drug-related article reprints into the community. The idea was to inform not only drug users themselves, but those in the community who were dealing with drug users.

From an editorial in The Albertan reflecting on the DIC’s first six month’s of operation, originally published in December 1970.

Staff worked 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. during the week, providing volunteer support and client services. They also ventured out to assist clients when necessary. “I went on out-calls myself, and manned the overnight or weekend calls. We didn’t have staff on site 24 hours a day for the first while. We had a call forwarding arrangement where the call would be forwarded to one of us at night. I did the calls at the DIC and at home,” says Ken.

Volunteers were as key to the operation of the DIC in 1970 as they are to the current Distress Centre in 2020. The cost per volunteer hour was 58 cents! Volunteers contributed 1,184 hours from May 31 to July 4, 1970 (not counting the infamous Festival of the Bands).

img des: a black and white photo of someone on the phone
A volunteer in the early 70s.

Statistical data collection was very inconsistent in the early days. Drawing from various reports, it appears that during those first 167 days there were 2,073 calls and 874 drop ins (including 796 crisis interventions), as well as 270 counselling sessions.

“It was a hub of activity for Calgary, and even for western Canada. We were well known as being on the front lines in a lot of places, and a lot of places modeled themselves after what we were doing in the early days,” says Emil.

At the end of the first months, it can truly be said that the Drug Information Centre was, as the slogan promoted, “A place to call to make things right.”

The Players: Attendees at the first organizing meeting in 1969

Calgary Mental Health Association (CMHA), City Preventive Social Services (PSS), John Howard Society, Mount Royal Counselling, Calgary Board of Education (CBE) Counselling, University of Calgary Health and Psychology, SAIT Counselling, Calgary Youth Aid, the Department of Youth and the Provincial Division of Alcoholism.

Initial Drug Advisory Council:

Doug Feltham, Chair ( CBE Supervisor of Guidance), Ken Low, Vice Chair (U of C); Dr N. Chewelos (Psychiatrist), Ron Ghitter (lawyer/MLA), Grant Spiro (parole); Minsters Bill Mather, Bill Gietz and Jack Colclough, Mrs. J. Francis (Junior League) Jan Skirrow, key volunteer from U of C who went on to be ED of AADAC, and the Deputy Minister of Community and Occupational Health.

Distress Centre will be sharing a story every Tuesday in 2020 for 50 weeks to celebrate our 50th Anniversary. We hope you will join us on this journey. All stories can be found here.

In the spirit of respect, reciprocity and truth, Distress Centre Calgary would like to honour and acknowledge Moh’kinsstis, and the traditional Treaty 7 territory and oral practices of the Blackfoot confederacy: Siksika, Kainai, Piikani, as well as the Îyâxe Nakoda and Tsuut’ina nations. We acknowledge that this territory is home to the Métis Nation of Alberta, Region 3 within the historical Northwest Métis homeland. Finally, we acknowledge all Nations – Indigenous and non – who live, work and play on this land, and who honour and celebrate this territory.