Sept. 14, 2021

Recovery trailblazer introduces UCalgary’s first recovery community

Victoria Burns draws on personal experience in providing a safe, inclusive space for students, faculty and staff in addictions recovery
Victoria Burns
Dr. Victoria Burns, PhD, founder and director of the UCalgary Recovery Community Courtesy Victoria Burns

Although Dr. Victoria Burns, PhD, found long-term recovery eight years ago following a 15-year battle with alcohol, she says it was in recovery — rather than in active addiction — that she faced the most stigma.

Burns, an assistant professor with the Faculty of Social Work, says she found herself leading a double life when she began her recovery journey as a PhD student. In a recent article, The Sober Professor, Burns discusses how well-meaning colleagues continually encouraged her to toast her successes. They couldn’t fathom why someone would refuse a drink.

Burns wants to ensure campus members don’t feel similarly isolated, ashamed, or judged. As such, she has founded the UCalgary Recovery Community (UCRC), a peer-driven, inclusive space supporting addiction recovery, building community, and reducing addiction stigma on campus. Activities include peer support, ally training, social activities, and anti-stigma initiatives.

Multiple pathways approach focuses on addiction as a community

Guided by harm reduction principles and a public health lens, the UCRC shifts from focusing on the individual with the “problem” to approaching addiction as a community.

Embracing a multiple pathways approach, Burns explains that “it's up to the individual to define what recovery means to them," adding that the UCRC also welcomes allies.

As she points out, the term “addiction” encompasses more than the problematic consumption of alcohol and other drugs. “Behavioural addictions, including gaming and eating disorders, are also on the rise, particularly in younger populations.”

Collegiate recovery programs (CRP) for students first emerged in the U.S. in the 1970s and can now be found on approximately 150 American campuses. The movement has been a little slower to take hold in Canada — the UCRC is just the third one in this country — and is a first of its kind because it’s intentionally integrating programming for students, faculty, and staff.

If we want to shift the culture and reduce the stigma, we have to involve all campus members.

"This is why the UCRC also draws inspiration from the U.S-based Recovery-Friendly Workplace movement,” Burns explains. "Employees need to know that if they are struggling, they will be met with compassion rather than punishment.

“We know that one in five Canadians experience addiction in their lifetime. Those numbers may be further exacerbated by fallout of COVID-19, with UCalgary researchers recently revealing that hospitalizations for liver disease skyrocketed by 90.5 per cent during the first wave of the pandemic.

“With over 6,500 employees and 32,000 students at UCalgary, the number of people who could benefit from the UCRC is in the thousands, but most are ashamed to talk about it," says Burns. "It’s time for recovery to become a positive identity claim rather than a shameful one.”

The silence surrounding addiction on the UCalgary campus was confirmed by a recent Campus Mental Health Strategy-funded study led by Burns.

With the support from Staff Wellness, Student Wellness Services, and the CMHS, the UCRC received a grant from The City of Calgary’s Community Action on Mental Health and Addiction Strategy to launch a six-month pilot, which has included partnering with Yasmeen Nosshi, UCalgary harm reduction adviser, to develop a peer-recovery navigator program for students.

Burns advocates for a “recovering out loud” approach: “Not only does openness help reduce self and social stigma but it also creates a sense of safety for others to come forward.

“We have several members of our steering committee with lived experience and are looking for more to join,” she says, stressing the importance of peer-driven recovery. "For instance, Jessica Hinton [well-being and worklife adviser], who is helping to develop the Staff Wellness side of the UCRC, is open about being in long-term recovery.

“Ultimately, we want the UCalgary community to know that if they are in recovery or seeking recovery from addiction or simply questioning their relationship with substances and/or other behaviours, they are not alone.”

In conjunction with Recovery Month, the UCRC is officially launching this September with the following no-cost activities:

Sept. 15 – Information coffee cart, 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. in the TFDL Qquad

Sept. 27 – Recovery yoga, 12 – 1 p.m. over Zoom

Campus-wide survey on addiction recovery, TBD

UCRC kickoff meeting, Sept. 23 over Zoom

For event registration, to join the UCRC listserv, or simply for more information, contact:

For more information visit the UCalgary Recovery Community website. Follow the UCRC on Instagram.