September 24, 2018

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Wyatt's absence from council while in rehab won't affect job

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Winnipeg City Councillor, Russ Wyatt, takes part in city hall debate in 2017. Wyatt is likely to retain his seat as the representative of the Transcona ward while remaining in rehab for alcoholism and drug abuse.</p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Winnipeg City Councillor, Russ Wyatt, takes part in city hall debate in 2017. Wyatt is likely to retain his seat as the representative of the Transcona ward while remaining in rehab for alcoholism and drug abuse.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/3/2018 (184 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Unless Russ Wyatt racks up three consecutive unauthorized absences from city council meetings, he’s likely to retain his seat as the representative of the Transcona ward while remaining in rehab for alcoholism and drug abuse — at least until the coming civic election in October.

Wyatt, who mysteriously disappeared from city hall two months ago on an unexplained and extended leave from work, broke his silence Thursday in an exclusive letter to the Free Press, announcing he was in treatment for his struggles with alcohol and drugs.

"It is difficult for me to express this but I have been suffering from depression for a number of years. And more recently it led to an addiction to alcohol and a substance use disorder. This situation was negatively affecting my family and me," Wyatt told the Free Press.

Since he's been missing from his duties at city hall, all of his absences from council have been authorized by resolutions approved by his colleagues. Unless that changes, it looks like the only way Wyatt would lose his council seat prior to the election is if he chose to resign.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/3/2018 (184 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Unless Russ Wyatt racks up three consecutive unauthorized absences from city council meetings, he’s likely to retain his seat as the representative of the Transcona ward while remaining in rehab for alcoholism and drug abuse — at least until the coming civic election in October.

Wyatt, who mysteriously disappeared from city hall two months ago on an unexplained and extended leave from work, broke his silence Thursday in an exclusive letter to the Free Press, announcing he was in treatment for his struggles with alcohol and drugs.

"It is difficult for me to express this but I have been suffering from depression for a number of years. And more recently it led to an addiction to alcohol and a substance use disorder. This situation was negatively affecting my family and me," Wyatt told the Free Press.

Since he's been missing from his duties at city hall, all of his absences from council have been authorized by resolutions approved by his colleagues. Unless that changes, it looks like the only way Wyatt would lose his council seat prior to the election is if he chose to resign.

So far, Wyatt has not agreed to an interview and has not made clear when — or if — he plans to return to work at city hall. In an email to the Free Press, he made clear he had not made up his mind on whether he would seek re-election in November.

Shannon Sampert, associate professor of political science at the University of Winnipeg and former perspectives and politics editor at the Free Press, believes Wyatt was courageous for coming forward about his struggles with addiction and depression, and doesn't think it will hurt his political career.

"What he did (Friday) by insisting this information be made public is unbelievably brave, unbelievably brave. I think it speaks to his character as a politician and his dedication to openness and transparency. I think it only bodes well for him, depending on what he decides to do. I like the fact he took control of the story and came out ahead of it, saying 'I'm releasing the details,'" Sampert said.

"If he makes the decision to run in the next election, I think anyone who would attack him for this would be seen as very mean spirited. It would look very badly on that person. You would not use this for character assassination."

In this day and age it isn't uncommon for elected officials to open up about their struggles with addiction, Sampert said, adding in the world of politics there are never-ending galas and events where alcohol is on offer and, for some, it can be tough to say no.

Without comparing Wyatt's situation to any of them, Sampert mentioned a number of high-profile politicians who've battled publicly with addiction and later returned to varying degrees of political success. The list included federal Veteran Affairs Minister Seamus O'Regan; Nunavut MP Hunter Tootoo; and late Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.

"We certainly know of people who have battled their demons in politics. It's not unusual for politicians to say, 'I'm dealing with an addiction issue, I need some help and then I'll be back.' There are quite a few of them, actually," Sampert said.

Since Jan. 19, Wyatt has been at the Aurora Recovery Centre, located on the shore of Lake Winnipeg in Gimli. In 2016, a spokesman for the rehab centre told the Free Press a 10-day detox, followed by a 30-day residential stay, was $17,000.

Wyatt made it clear to the Free Press his family was covering the cost of his treatment.

Just what treatment looks like for Wyatt depends on what his personal issues consist of, said a spokeswoman for the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba.

"Residential treatment is very individualized. It's very specific to that person and where they're at and what the harms are in their life. It usually involves education around the substance itself, and it gives that person time to look at their own use and the way it's been impacting their life," the spokeswoman said.

Wyatt's struggles highlight the fact addiction knows no borders and permeates across all socio-economic lines, she said. In his letter to the Free Press, Wyatt said he hoped his candor about his battle with depression, alcoholism and drug abuse may help others who are battling their own demons in silence, or who find themselves afraid of seeking help.

According to Sampert, that Wyatt has chosen to open up publicly about this speaks to how far society has come in the past decade in terms of breaking down the stigma many who deal with addiction and mental illness report facing.

"I would say this is another example of how far we've come. Even 10 years ago, 15 years ago, this isn't something anyone would want to talk about. We've come a long way on mental-health issues, addiction issues and being open and willing to talk about these things," she said.

"We recognize now that it is a mental-health concern, an addiction concern, but not a personal, moral failing."

ryan.thorpe@freepress.mb.ca  Twitter: @rk_thorpe

Ryan Thorpe

Ryan Thorpe
Reporter

Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.

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