Peter stands in front of a display of photographs, pointing to one that shows a tunnel in the foreground and an arrangement of flowers made to appear as a Maple Leaf.
“There’s a tunnel into Canada right there – that’s what I was looking at – trying to dig our way out because we have dug ourselves in,” says the amateur photographer, a client of the Toronto Drug Treatment Court (DTC).
The tunnel is a metaphor for addiction to some form of drugs and the struggle to come out clean, he explains.
Peter (not his real name) was one of eight photographers who had their work on display at Old City Hall on Tuesday, Jan. 27. The work ranged from naturistic to cityscapes but it was the photographers behind these photos that really had a story to tell.
All eight were current and former clients of the TDTC who were given cameras over the summer through the Gift of Life program at CAMH (Centre For Addiction and Mental Health) as part of their treatment.
The DTC is a post-plea program open to non-violent offenders whose criminal activity is driven by drug addiction. Officers can refer people they arrest to the court that adopts restorative justice principles when dealing with clients to free them of drug addiction and their likelihood to reoffend. The photo club was part of the therapy offered to clients.
CAMH counsellor Kristine Tomcheski was one of the facilitators of the photo program.
“The idea was to use images to help people explore the community and communicate stories,” she said.
Tomcheski said often those who have been former drug addicts are highly marginalized – to give them a camera is way of letting them tell a part of their story outside of therapy. Photos not only give that perspective – they also give control to a TDTC client of their own narrative, explained Tomcheski.
I think it allowed them to share their story and experiences with other people… which I think may be hard to put into words
Sharon Cairns, a liaison Court Officer with the Toronto Drug Treatment Court, thinks the photography club really encompassed what DTC was all about.
“We are a court that is based on restorative justice principles and that’s something different from what we normally see in the courtroom. So this exhibit and this group and the people who went out and took pictures really encompasses that… which is looking at something from a different perspective.”
Cairns said the program allowed clients to have some creative freedom and therapeutic value.
“I think it allowed them to share their story and experiences with other people… which I think may be hard to put into words,” said Cairns, who works closely with all those who walk into Drug Treatment Court and knows them well.
For Andrew (not his real name), another current client of TDTC, the photo sessions helped him change his perspective on how he sees things.
“Even when I’m not at photo booth, I go and take pictures now,” he said, pointing to a photo he took while out for a bike ride. The photo was of a large cloud, illuminated by the sun behind it, “I see clouds every day, but never a gold one,” he said, smiling. He added that by taking photos - something he can do with just his phone - helps him stay busy and “not get into trouble.”
The Toronto Drug Treatment Court started in 1998 and was Canada’s first. The program brings together court and addiction treatment to help offenders by using a harm-reduction model, explained Cairns.
The Toronto Police Service supports the program in a variety of ways. One of them is through a designated officer, such as Cairns, who provides support not only to DTC clients but also to officers who may be dealing with the DTC.
“Police officers are the first point of contact for offenders and, if they are able to provide information and make referrals to DTC, it is key to the success of our program,” said Cairns.
It helps to keep me clean because I’m sharing my story and how I am successful now
For Kathy Middleton, an alumnus of the court who volunteers her time educating people about the court, credits DTC in helping turn her life around.
Middleton said she became addicted to crack cocaine in the mid-90s. She was an assistant bank manager, with a house and two children at home. Having recently been divorced she entered into an abusive relationship where the couple started doing drugs. Soon Middleton had lost her home and was prostituting herself to support her habit. After being in and out of jail for years, she was given a chance to go to Drug Treatment Court, but was expelled for non-compliance.
In 2009, Middleton robbed an undercover officer, To avoid jail time, she went back to the DTC. It was this time around that she changed her life. “I was too old and I just didn’t want to do it anymore,” said the 57-year-old.
While still a client of the DTC, she was offered a volunteer position to help other clients. After graduating, she began working with Cairns and CAMH. Four years later and sober, Middleton says she has no plans to get back into her former lifestyle. Volunteering and working with TPS and CAMH are what keep her clean.
“It helps to keep me clean because I’m sharing my story and how I am successful now … and I can’t be using and going around and saying things like that,” said Middleton, who is about to graduate from college this year and plans on getting into social work.