Open Letter and Call to Action for MAPS Canada Re “Racist & Prejudicial Behaviours”

Received in our inbox this morning…

An Open Letter and Call to Action for MAPS Canada

To the Executive Director, Mark Haden; Board Chair, Trevor Millar; and the Board of MAPS Canada,

When speaking of white supremacy and systemic racism in Canada, the topic is often associated with our high-profile neighbour to the south. And while the United States takes center stage in the 24-hour news cycle, Canada is a nation built on the same template: European dominion and the brutality of genocide and colonization. In Canada, Black and Indigenous peoples are statistically overrepresented in school suspensions, police violence, and the criminal justice system. Racism is a public health crisis, impacting all facets of life, from access to competent medical care and mental health services, to employment and housing policies. Despite Canada’s social safety net and rank as one of the world’s “most liveable countries,” the legacy of residential schools still rings true: in 2020, a young Indigenous mother lay dying in a Quebec hospital, assaulted with racist vitriol from the white medical staff entrusted with her care. Clearly, Hippocratic Oaths can be illusory; equally so is the image MAPS Canada enjoys of being an egalitarian organization that shall end the suffering of all via legalizing psychedelics.

We write this open letter as two women of colour and former co-leads of the Diversity Committee at MAPS Canada. During our eight-month tenure (as unpaid volunteers) we faced continual obstruction by leadership in our efforts to address long-entrenched discriminatory practices in the psychedelic research domain and implement initiatives to combat race-based health disparities. We experienced repeated microaggressions, racist remarks and innuendo, ignorant and prejudicial behaviours, and other trauma-inducing experiences, both by leadership and in the organization at large. We believe it is critical to call out these behaviours—both to hold MAPS Canada accountable, and to shine a light on the disconnect between the values it purports to hold, versus its organizational goals and actual conduct.

The following is a partial list of incidents we faced while working at MAPS Canada:

  • While at an in-person meeting at the Executive Director (ED) Mark Haden’s home to discuss our goals for the Diversity Committee, we asked if MAPS Canada would adopt a commitment to collective liberation, like MAPS Public Benefit Corporation in the US publicly supports. Haden’s reply was: “MAPS Canada is not a save the whales organization,” and that its only goal was to legalize psychedelics.
  • At this same meeting, we questioned the demographics of the Board of Directors (all white and mostly male) and the benefit of having at least one person of colour to help oversee and implement JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) related efforts. His response: “we don’t have single issue board members.” (The implication being that a person of colour could not possess other relevant qualifications, or that JEDI did not intersect with initiatives in drug policy, education, research, etc.)
  • When the topic of collective liberation resurfaced, Haden told us that MAPS Canada was already “working to promote collective liberation…what we are offering to the world to do that, is legalizing psychedelics.” (This was after he had spoken to the Policy and Advocacy Director at MAPS US, who in trying to assist us, had advised Haden on what collective liberation means, in both theory and practice.)
  • Following George Floyd’s murder and the worldwide protests led by the Black Lives Matter movement, we asked Haden’s assistant why MAPS Canada was staying silent on its digital media channels. Our help was enlisted to draft a statement for the organization. We spent several hours writing a statement which was sent to Haden. He made major edits, after which it was posted (without consulting us). The first bullet below is an excerpt from our statement; the second shows their edit of this portion:
    • “We stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and condemn the police brutality against the Black/Brown/Indigenous communities in the US and Canada. We pledge to do the necessary work to both spread awareness and actively oppose the inherently racist systems that perpetuate violence against BIPOC.”
    • “We support the Black Lives Matter movement and condemn the police brutality against Black, Brown and Indigenous communities. MAPS Canada is an organization which is dedicated to healing and healing on many levels is urgently needed now.”
  • Two days after the above incident, we requested permission to invite other MAPS Canada committee leads to an “all-hands meeting” to discuss the JEDI framework, and other issues—which was partially driven by the silence from the Social Media Committee in the wake of the BLM protests. Our request was denied, and we were told we had to meet with Haden and Board Chair, Trevor Millar, to discuss why we wanted to have the all-hands meeting, and “what our stance should be moving forward regarding diversity issues.”
  • Shortly after, we were informed that Millar—a white male with an extensive history of posting bigoted content to his personal Facebook page—would be attending all of our meetings. (The implication was clear—leadership did not sanction our efforts, and we were to be actively monitored.) Millar, who explicitly boasts of his affiliation with various psychedelic organizations, including MAPS Canada, published various inflammatory Facebook posts, including the following:
    • A clip of Tucker Carlson, the right-wing Fox News host, arguing against the existence of gender-based discrimination. The post includes a transcript of Carlson’s speech where he states: “Men are privileged. Women are oppressed. Hire and promote and reward accordingly. That would be fine if it were true. But it’s not true.”
    • Several misogynistic, anti-#MeToo movement articles, including ones written by self-described “dissident feminist” Camille Paglia, where she dismisses the Brett Kavanaugh sexual assault case, stating: “the #MeToo movement has gone seriously off track in encouraging uncorroborated accusations dating from ten, twenty, or thirty years ago.” (Ignoring the well-documented fact that women often do not report sexual assault or identify their abusers due to fear of the consequences, including being disbelieved and ostracized.)
    • Articles with transphobic narratives, including one published by the Witherspoon Institute, a conservative think tank vehemently opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage. In this article, the writer reviews a children’s book written by a transgender girl, and continuously misgenders the girl by calling her “he” and “him.”
    • An article against the anti-Islamophobia motion M-103 in the Canadian Parliament, where, under the guise of resisting the stifling of free speech, Millar states: “…No matter what hateful things I yell at another person, I will never actually physically cause them harm,” ignoring the violence that Islamophobic vitriol inflicts upon Muslims, whether in practice, or posted on a social media page. As two women of colour from Muslim families, we felt deeply uncomfortable when Haden assigned this individual to attend our meetings. When we asked Haden’s assistant if other committees had also been assigned board members, he told us this had not been done before. No further explanation was provided.
  • Millar–while discussing work we were doing for the committee with Haden’s assistant–told him we should “stick to our knitting”–a misogynistic, belittling comment revealing his true mindset, and a stark contrast to the support he had given us in public settings. (We were also informed by Haden’s assistant, when recalling this conversation, that Millar was not an ally to us.)
  • Further attempts to get the organization to acknowledge or incorporate the JEDI framework within MAPS Canada were rebuffed. We were told by Haden to “… focus on one piece, the diversity piece… how we can increase the diversity in our group. JEDI is huge–you can go all over the place with that.”
  • Given our directive to focus on the “diversity” piece, when we asked Haden to discuss this in more depth, we were told that he wanted “a rainbow of diverse people to support our goal of legalizing psychedelics.” The Chinese-Canadian population (named as one monolithic group, versus multiple distinct groups) and Indigenous (the Musqueam) were seen as most beneficial for these efforts. In effect, we were directed to reach out to these marginalized communities for the sole purpose of gaining their political support to push forward the organization’s agenda to legalize psychedelics. First responders and the military were also named, as “folks [that] are such incredible spokespersons for us.”
  • On July 1st, Haden’s assistant emailed our third co-lead privately (a white woman who had joined three months after we started as co-leads) to ask if she wanted to be the sole committee lead (she declined). We were not included in these communications, nor were we given the opportunity to weigh in on the matter.
  • We were asked to review and respond to a “Terms of Reference” document written by Haden, detailing the purpose of our committee. We did a comprehensive edit/rewrite with our third co-lead and the leads from the Toronto Diversity Committee over several weeks. We sent it to Haden, his assistant, and Millar on August 14th. On August 18th, the assistant told us that the document “look[ed] great” and that “when he [Haden] has gotten around to reviewing it [the assistant] would follow up … [to] figure out next steps.” This would be the last communication from MAPS Canada about the document.
  • On August 17th, Haden emailed our third co-lead (we were not CC’d), asking her to lunch. On September 9th, she informed us that Haden had contacted her, and that she had accepted his invitation. On September 16th, they met in person. Haden asked her to take the role of sole lead for the Diversity Committee; she declined.
  • On August 21st, Millar emailed our third co-lead, requesting that she meet and “go over the Terms of Reference for the Diversity Committee.” Again, we were not included in these communications. Their meeting took place on September 10th, in spite of us voicing concerns to our colleague about discussing work that we had produced collectively.
  • We received formal notification about our removal as co-leads by MAPS Canada via email on September 29th, hours before we were due to share updates on our committee work at the monthly general volunteer meeting. The rationale given was to “keep the committees consistent with all other committees and therefore just have one leader.” A few days later, the assistant thanked us via email for our passion and said we had “laid a solid foundation to be built on in the future.” The woman replacing us is a friend of Haden’s who had only attended one Diversity Committee meeting, and did not confer with us about our work on behalf of the organization.

We share these events to highlight the failure of MAPS Canada to engage in the work that is required to become a truly diverse, inclusive, and anti-racist organization. Their performative allyship and public virtue signaling are negated by the patriarchal, repressive climate and the disrespect and lack of civility we endured. Trying to secretly replace us with our white colleague underscores their cynicism about what our (free) labour is worth, and who deserves a seat at the table to engage in this work. The energy MAPS Canada spent derailing our efforts would have been better served tackling topics that live well within their scope: from diversifying clinical studies to advocating for equitable access. Instead, MAPS Canada took the low road: operating within a framework that reproduces white supremacism, turns a blind eye to the grave inequalities in our midst, and marginalizes Indigenous communities while appropriating plant medicine healing practices without reparations or acknowledgement.

Signed,

Keeno Ahmed-Jones

Ava Daeipour

Call to Action

In addition to sharing these sobering experiences, there is a deeper and more pressing need: organizational accountability. Meaningful change at MAPS Canada will only occur with a broad and sustained commitment to dismantle the habituated, normative behaviours which center and elevate white privilege, silence and invisibilize BIPOC voices, and peddle in cultural appropriation to promote their agenda. Thus, we feel that a Call to Action is warranted. Implementing the steps below (which include some of our original Terms of Reference) can be a starting point for MAPS Canada to steward ethical, socially conscious and culturally sensitive policies, and move towards equitable access to psychedelics.

  1. Develop a robust and meaningful justice equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI) strategic plan that is transparent and public, with clear deliverables and metrics that hold the organization accountable.
  2. Diversify the board from its current form (all-white, largely male, and privileged) so that it reflects the diverse community it purports to serve. We recommend enlisting the services of an external BIPOC-led organization to conduct an audit of MAPS Canada’s practices and culture, and make appropriate recommendations for suitable candidates with a demonstrable professional history in JEDI/advocacy efforts.
  3. Sever ties from all relationships with individuals—within or associated with MAPS Canada—who are known racists and/or promote hate speech, homo-/transphobic, or xenophobic views.
  4. Cease the recruitment of ethnically diverse/BIPOC populations for the sole purpose of garnering public support to legalize psychedelics. Meaningful engagement, coalition building, and intellectual exchange must be prioritized over promoting transactional and superficial relationships that are devoid of tangible benefit for these communities.
  5. Address the implications of the War on Drugs and systemic racism, and their impact on current psychedelic drug trials and drug legalization efforts.
  6. Establish a Health Equity Committee to address racial/ethnic disparities in health outcomes (including by race, socioeconomic status, gender/gender identity, provider treatment and behaviour, access to mental health services, etc.). Current policy initiatives at MAPS Canada do not address any of these issues, thus any legalization efforts are highly likely to further disenfranchise and harm already marginalized communities.
  7. Establish alliances between all MAPS Canada committees and the Diversity Committee to ensure that JEDI principles are being upheld across the organization. Update all organization documents including committee mandates and the volunteer training manual to include objectives and language that align with JEDI principles.
  8. Partner with community-based organizations to develop an outreach and education campaign that addresses the historical use of psychedelics and plant medicines, Indigenous/spiritual, sacramental, and therapeutic uses (current and future-facing), and a template whereby psychedelic use can be conducted in a manner that benefits and respects all Canadians.
  9. Commit wholeheartedly to decolonization by working towards: discarding and unlearning colonial ideas, values, and degradation practices; dismantling historical and contemporary colonial approaches and practices; acknowledging Indigenous peoples’ historical use of psychedelic plant medicines for healing; preventing the erasure of their knowledge and history in MAPS Canada’s work, and; advocating for equitable access and sustainable models for psychedelic therapy.
  10. Establish an advisory committee for MAPS Canada comprised of medicine carriers and leaders from Indigenous groups and other communities of colour, with the aim of 1) gathering feedback on current psychedelic legalization initiatives, and 2) assisting with the design and development of a just and equitable post-prohibition framework that addresses the unique needs of these communities.
  11. Diversify the selection process of all event panels, webinars, etc. (BIPOC, LGBTQ, cultural, ability groups) at MAPS Canada, in conjunction with diverse decision-making bodies. All-white panels should not be accepted, nor should the practice of a single token BIPOC for the purpose of optics at public events.
  12. Require and provide all board members, staff, and volunteers with periodic diversity and racial justice training.
  13. Set aside a number of low/no cost tickets for all events. Lack of funds should never be a barrier to attend a MAPS Canada event.
  14. Hold quarterly Town Halls to share and ascertain progress, and have open dialogue with the community at large.
Keeno Ahmed-Jones (@keenoahmedjones) is a writer whose latest interests focus on race, rising inequality, and human rights. She was previously a Fellow at the Regents Research Fund, where she provided research, policy analysis and counsel to the Board of Regents and senior leadership at the New York State Education Department. She received her M.A. in Sociology and Education Policy from Teachers College, Columbia University.

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