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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Toward a common language of diversity and respect

Dan Reist

Reprinted from "Alcohol" issue of Visions Journal, 2006, 2 (9), p. 14-15

Considering the complex nature of modern society, it’s easy to see why people—including Canadians—seek comfort in things that organize their choices into neat categories. Whether it takes the form of a combo meal, vacation package or cell phone feature bundle, there is a trend toward simplifying daily matters with a number, label or one-size-fits-all service.

It is of little wonder, then, that professionals in the addictions field in Canada have been calling for similar relief in the form of a neatly packaged tome of substance-related terminology. After all, how effective is it if doctors, clinicians and others in the industry use different words to describe the same substance use issue, or use one blanket term to describe a host of substance -related harms? Similarly, how can researchers and front-line workers pass on information to policy makers, the public and users themselves if nobody speaks the same ‘language’? Wouldn’t it be easier to communicate if everyone were using the same words, and assigning the same meanings to those words?

At a recent symposium on substance-use terminology, addiction industry professionals from across Canada discussed the question of consensus around language use and considered the idea of developing a ‘dictionary of substance terminology.’1 They soon discovered, however, that it was impossible to decide which group of stakeholders had the right to have the ‘last word’ on substances. Instead, they looked for a different approach to the language question—and decided a truly Canadian approach was needed.

Borrowing from our nation’s bilingual and multicultural roots, the participants agreed that different people express themselves in different ways, and that all people deserve the right to use their own language. The only way around the word problem would be for all stakeholders to 1) develop ‘multilingual’ skills so everyone involved can both speak freely and understand others around them, and 2) articulate a set of common values in order to bridge the gaps between languages

The value of words: Bridging our languages about addictions

While a set of common values was not clearly defined at the symposium, some key words and phrases hinted at several fundamental over-arching principles:

People-centred approach

A people-centred approach puts human beings at the forefront of our actions concerning drug issues, but not so far in front that we forget the external circumstances that make substance use possible and potentially harmful.

Multi-dimensional continuum

This principle involves extending our language of harm beyond substances themselves to address larger matters behind substance use, such as housing, literacy and justice.

Locating our ideologies

In identifying and “owning” our individual language positions (e.g., doctors “own” medical terminology), we can share our facts and opinions, and understand the uses and biases of our (and others’) discourse.

Full disclosure and open dialogue

Clear information delivered frankly to Canadian citizens can reduce the confusion and hysteria that often envelop conversations about substance use. Successful relationships (e.g., between parents and children) require open dialogue.


This principle aims to acknowledge that human beings, across time and space, have regularly turned to substances for support, release and spiritual connection. Substance use meets certain human needs, so when we respond to harms associated with substance use, we should be ready to give people access to other tools to achieve the same ends.

Human rights and citizenship

Responses to concerns about drug use must be reflective of our rights as citizens to open, healthy and safe environments, and be free of bigotry, sexism, ageism and other ‘isms’ that infringe upon our rights.

Choosing our words carefully

In addition to basic principles emerging from the symposium dialogue, a few pragmatic recommendations concerning the language used in the National Framework for Action and related documents were made:

Use simple, general language whenever possible

Framework documents should use the broadest possible language (e.g., substance use and harm) to refer to the field of interest, and use narrowing language (e.g., substance use disorders) only when required. Effort should be made to use common language and avoid the creation or use of technical terms owned by particular interest groups.

Include a glossary in any documents intended for broad distribution

While general language should be used whenever possible, glossaries of terms should be added to documents to ensure clarity around specific or technical terminology. Inevitably, terms that have multiple meanings, or that might be esoteric or specialized, will need to be used. Inclusion of a glossary will encourage authors to be explicit about their language.

Articulate the cost-benefit nature of both substance use and our language choices

By expressing awareness of how our discourse on substance use is connected to our beliefs and decisions about benefits or harms, framework documents could set the stage for meaningful dialogue. Attention could be placed on the larger issue of language, rather than on the individual words. And effort could be made toward avoiding the negative slant that pervades so many substance-related issues.

Use language that is consistent with shared values

Greater emphasis needs to be placed on articulating shared values and linking them to substance use concerns. By framing the issues broadly, artificial distinctions can be replaced by more inclusive constructs. In keeping with the Canadian appreciation for diversity and multiculturalism, our focus should be on drawing out, rather than papering over, the distinct perspectives that co-exist in our current systems.

There is still much work to do in creating a framework that meets the needs of our nation, but all Canadians will benefit from using language that encourages dialogue and respects diversity, while at the same time creating a sense of shared experience

About the Authors

Carolyn has worked as a community nurse and educator and as a policy consultant for families and children with special needs. She is currently a doctoral candidate in the Faculty of Human and Social Development at the University of Victoria

  1. The National Symposium on Language was held on January 31, 2006, at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue at Simon Fraser University. The symposium was funded and hosted by the Centre for Addictions Research of BC, Provincial Health Services Authority, BC Ministry of Health, and Health Canada.

  2. For a more detailed summary of the symposium outcomes, search for Words, values, and Canadians: A report on the dialogue at the National Symposium on Language on the Centre for Addictions Research of BC’s Substance Information Link website at

  3. Health Canada & Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. (2005). National framework for action to reduce the harms associated with alcohol and other drugs and substances in Canada. Ottawa, ON: Health Canada. Available online at EN/Partnerships/National_ Framework.

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