Thirty-Fifth Anniversary of the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction

For 35 years, Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) has been working at the forefront of substance use disorders, using evidence-based research to drive meaningful change. Our goal is to reduce the harm caused by substance use disorders and inform people living in Canada and policy makers. With a proud track record of success, we continue to push the boundaries and strive for even greater impact in the future.

We are very proud to see how far we’ve come, but we’re not stopping here. We’re always thinking about how we can do even more and make an even bigger impact in the future.


CCSA quickly made its presence felt in the substance use field, both nationally and internationally.


An act of Parliament created CCSA as a non-governmental organization to provide national leadership on substance use and to advance solutions to address alcohol- and other drug-related harms.


  • Substance use has a direct impact on the economy. To showcase the effects alcohol and other drugs have on Canada’s bottom line, CCSA started a ground-breaking summit called Business Leaders Committee in Toronto. This provided a crucial platform for top executives to offer their insights and to shape and rally for private sector involvement in addressing substance use and addiction.
  • At CCSA, we believe in empowering young people to make informed decisions about their health. We made sure youth’s voices were heard at the Berlin Institute by taking an international approach to empower young people in the fight against substance use and addiction.


  • We hosted our first biennial conference, the Issues of Substance conference. It has become our flagship event, addressing issues related to substance use and addiction affecting the health and safety of people in Canada. For our most recent conference in 2021, we hosted more than 750 delegates, earned 258,000 impressions on social media, and offered more than 100 presentations and more than 40 hours of educational resources.



  • Starting in 2015, we have made a difference in the fight against the opioid crisis. By collaborating with individuals who have lived experience with substance use, we brought crucial awareness and education to communities, leaving a lasting impact. The toxic drug crisis has spread beyond opioids and is far from resolved. Our work to reduce the harms and deaths it causes continues relentlessly.


  • The federal government consulted CCSA on cannabis legalization (Bill C-45). We continue to advise on cannabis issues, such as impaired driving, pregnancy and the effect on medications and illnesses.


Our mission has stayed the same for all these years — to make things better for people living in Canada who use substances.

Understanding the health and social effects of different policies is crucial to identifying problems and finding solutions. That’s why we keep sharing our research, knowledge and expertise with decision makers to help create policies that are based on the latest evidence.

At CCSA, we believe in a person-centred approach. We listen to the voices of people in recovery or still using substances. We use their input to plan programs and services that meet their needs and the needs of their families and friends.

We’re always working to bridge the gap between what we know works and what’s being done. That’s why we build relationships with partners across the country. By working together, we can create innovative solutions.

In the coming year, we’re excited to share some of the stories about the great work we’ve done and to keep you updated on what’s happening in Canada and the work still ahead of us.

Amplifying Voices and Reducing Stigma Together

CCSA is the only national organization in Canada with a legislated mandate to reduce the harm of alcohol and other drugs on people in Canada. We’ve been doing this for 35 years. To commemorate our anniversary, we’re taking a look back at some of what we’ve achieved in three and a half decades.

Stigma — One of the Biggest Barriers to Receiving Support

Stigma is one of the biggest barriers to better health for people who are experiencing a substance use disorder. Our first story starts there.

“I was judged. People looked at me like I wasn’t even human.”

“My family turned their backs on me. I had no friends. I was so lonely and depressed, I wanted to die.”

“I was treated like a leper … people I had known for years personally and professionally pretended not to know me.”

These are the voices of people with lived or living experience of substance use disorder. People who have used one or more substances and are no longer actively using them have lived experience. People who are currently using substances have living experience

According to the Community Addictions Peer Support Association (CAPSA), stigma is a deeply held set of false beliefs about a group of people with at least one attribute in common. This leads to judgment, oppression and discrimination, either through overt actions or silent complicity. People with substance use disorder can face immense stigma.

CCSA is working to eliminate this stigma. While stigma still exists, we believe there is an increased understanding of substance use disorder as a medical condition — not a moral failing. When we see people first, we eliminate the stigma of substance use.  

Breaking Barriers Through Partnership: Lived and Living Experience (LLE) Partnership

CCSA realized how important it is to include the voices of people with lived or living experience. We recognized our need to partner with people with LLE. We needed to embrace the mindset of “nothing about us without us.” We were determined that nothing about substance use would be decided without first hearing from people who had experienced it firsthand.

The Lived and Living Experience partnership was created to ensure that individuals are involved in discussions and decisions that impact the policies, strategies and services that affect them. The LLE community provides us with guidance on priorities and research approaches. We continue to listen and evolve the language we use based on feedback from the LLE community.

CAPSA and CCSA Partnership

Gord Garner, Vice President Strategic Partnerships at CAPSA, shares the same principles on representation and wanted to work with us. As a person who has experienced substance use disorder and the stigma that comes with it, Mr. Garner knows we need to respond to substance use issues as a community. CAPSA works to ensure all Canadians have access to services and supports without discrimination or stigma.

One of the first pieces of advice from Mr. Garner and the greater LLE community was for us to change our language to help eliminate stigma. This included moving from “substance abuse” to “substance use.” That commitment meant changing our name from the CanadianCentre on SubstanceAbuse to the Canadian Centre on SubstanceUse and Addiction.

Since that time, Mr. Garner and the CAPSA team have walked alongside us. With CAPSA, we co-authored Overcoming Stigma Through Language: A Primer. We also co-authored Stigma Primer for Journalists, a guide to better reporting on substance use and the people it impacts. It is used in newsrooms and journalism schools across Canada.

At CCSA, we believe in the power of long-term collaborative partnerships. We know that stigma is the biggest barrier to getting support, and we also know that when we work together, we can create a more inclusive and supportive system. CCSA and CAPSA continue to work toward the common goal of abolishing the stigma around substance use and addiction.

Lived and Living Experience and Families and Friends (LLEAFF)

In 2017, we partnered with the National Recovery Advisory Committee (NRAC) to create the first-ever Life in Recovery from Addiction in Canada survey of people who have experienced  substance use disorder. Results revealed that recovery is positive, achievable and sustainable. It is linked to positive engagement with family, friends, the community and the workforce.

In 2018, we travelled across Canada, holding workshops for organizations and policy makers to help them understand and remove stigma from their day-to-day practices.

Our LLE community has since expanded to include families and friends, forming LLEAFF.Their perspectives are just as important as those with lived and living experience. In fact, people with substance use disorder and their loved ones are experts in their own right. Partnering with them is essential to enhance research and improve policies and services designed to meet their needs.

In 2019, we created three LLEAFF working groups from across the country. Since their formation, the LLEAFF groups have provided their expertise on a number of our projects, including:

Other examples of projects we’ve developed in partnership with LLE groups include Life in Recovery from Addiction in Canada and Moving Toward a Recovery-Oriented System of Care: A Resource for Service Providers and Decision Makers.

Moving Forward — Together 

With the ongoing success of the LLEAF model, we hope that government policies and agencies that provide substance use health supports and services will continue to be guided by the voices of people whose life experiences are so important to our work.

We all need to keep learning. Our partnerships are integral to the emerging knowledge that brings compassion to scientific inquiry. The work we have done together has positively impacted people in Canada and created powerful projects with lasting effects. 

Although we’ve accomplished a lot over the past 35 years, there is always more work to be done. Let’s keep doing better — together.

Forging a Path to Action: The Brain Builders Lab

CCSA is the only national organization with a legislated mandate to reduce the harm of alcohol and other drugs on people in Canada. This year, we are taking a look back at some of our accomplishments in a series of articles to commemorate our 35th anniversary.

While knowledge helps improve the understanding of a subject, it is only truly valuable when the right people turn it into positive actions. That is exactly what CCSA and the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative (AFWI) accomplished through the Brain Builders Lab.

“Decades of neuroscience and genetics research identified that experiencing traumatic events in childhood — known as Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs — can interfere with brain development and increase the likelihood of developing a range of health issues in adulthood, including mental health and substance use. The more of these events a person experiences before age 18 [years], the more at risk they are.” — Doris Payer, senior knowledge broker, CCSA
Understanding how ACEs affect brain development and shape health outcomes is essential for identifying risk for substance use and associated harms. This information can also help identify intervention points to try to prevent or treat substance use disorders later in life.

Bridging the Knowledge Gap

Recognizing the importance of these findings, in 2016, the AFWI developed the Brain Story to help the public understand key scientific concepts about brain development, ACEs and resilience. This understanding is crucial to developing more effective policies, programs and practices for substance use prevention and trauma-informed intervention.

The evidence-based approach used to tell the Brain Story centres around five concepts to explain, in simple language, how and why brain and early child development matter to adult outcomes. It organizes them into a story that describes what promotes healthy brain development, what derails it, why this is important and what we can do about it.

“I went in thinking I was going to learn more about the brain, and instead I ended up learning more about the kids that I was teaching and my own responses to the stresses that are in their life.” — Duncan Wood, senior science teacher

When we learned about the Brain Story at CCSA, we felt a need to shine a spotlight on this knowledge translation tool and the benefits it delivers. We think one of the great things about the Brain Story is that you do not have to be a neuroscientist to benefit from the neuroscience.

Turning Knowledge into Action

CCSA began collaborating with AFWI in 2018 to expand the reach, accessibility and understanding of the Brain Story science to raise awareness of substance use as a public health issue, reduce stigma, and change policy and practice accordingly. This included promoting the program as a learning tool for professionals across sectors and translating the Brain Story certification course and learning cards into French.

We held numerous consultations. Through that process, we determined that the primary gaps were around taking the Brain Story knowledge and implementing it at the local level.

In 2019, we launched the Brain Builders Lab (BBL). The community-based effort was an effort to bridge the gap between learning about the Brain Story and putting it into action across the country.

For the 2018–2021 cycle, CCSA selected 65 champions of the Brain Story who had applied from across Canada. The champions were primarily active in health care, education, or child and family services. They became known as Brain Builders. In March 2019, we brought them together for a two-day BBL event, which gave them access to experts, facilitators and a systematic process to develop two-year projects to raise awareness of the science and advocate for its application in policy and practice.

“The conversation changes from ‘What’s wrong with you?’ to ‘What happened to you?’ That’s my biggest takeaway as a public health nurse working in this field for 30 years.” — Kim Scott, public health nurse, Healthy Families Healthy Babies program

For two years, CCSA supported the Brain Builders and their projects by:
• Providing opportunities for exchanging knowledge, such as quarterly check-in calls and an online platform;
• Providing access to mentors and experts for knowledge mobilization, evaluation, sex- and gender-based analysis, and cultural considerations; and
• Developing forms and tools to facilitate project planning, data collection and reporting.

Celebrating Brain Builder Lab Success Stories

In February 2021, we brought the Brain Builders together again to share and celebrate the impact of their projects. This was done virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We helped 13 Brain Builders create impact videos to share their stories.

This BBL produced 36 projects; however, due to disruptions from the pandemic, only 25 were completed and reported data.

Combined, the projects resulted in:
• The creation of 230 unique products, like presentations, brochures and social media campaigns;
• Delivery of 435 unique activities, such as staff training, workshops and learning events;
• Reaching a target audience of 34,550, including members of the healthcare, education, family services and public safety workforces; organizational leadership and policy makers; and people living with or in recovery from mental and substance use disorders, parents and the public; and
• Creation of 19 case studies by CCSA on BBL projects.

And of the projects:
• 100 per cent reported increased knowledge and awareness among their audiences;
• 52 per cent of those who measured attitude changes reported decreased stigma;
• 76 per cent reported practice changes;
• 44 per cent reported policy changes among their target audience, including 40 per cent who mandated or encouraged the Brain Story certification as staff training; and
• 64 per cent reported better system co-ordination and collaboration.

Going Further
Childhood trauma can affect current behaviours and problems, and it’s not the person’s fault. Having more people understand that will help reduce the stigma around addiction and mental health and increase support.
The Brain Builders have made a real difference, and you can too. If you are interested in taking the Brain Story certification course, please register online. To learn more about the Brain Story science and CCSA’s involvement, please email

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