Since 1973, Portage has helped Canadians overcome substance abuse-related problems and live healthy, happy, and productive lives. A Canadian non-profit organization, Portage operates several drug rehabilitation centres in Québec: in Montréal, Prévost (Laurentians), Québec City and Saint-Malachie (Chaudière-Appalaches). Two other centres cater to residents of Ontario and Atlantic Canada.

Portage’s facilities offer services specifically tailored for adolescents, adults, mother-and-children, and people suffering from mental health issues. The goal of these services is to strengthen the substance-dependent persons to enable them, through comprehensive and cost-effective interventions based on the therapeutic community approach, to live lives of sobriety, filled with dignity, self-respect, and accomplishment.

February 14, 2023, marked Portage’s 50th anniversary—50 years of helping people overcome dependencies.

“At the end of the 1960s, Canada was in a state of effervescence,” says President Peter Howlett. “Between a wave of protests against the Church, the questioning of the education system and a certain generational fracture, this period also saw a significant amount of illicit drugs used in North America. The use of cannabis, LSD, heroin and amphetamines, already prevalent among war veterans, was being driven by the hippie movement and the “flower power” era. The growing number of young drug addicts, especially in Montréal, alarmed enough citizens that they got together and took action to find a solution.”

Given the context, Howlett’s mother, Alphonsine Paré-Howlett, already well known in the Montréal community for her innovative work in education and social services, joined forces with Dorothy Reitman, a member of the National Council of Jewish Women of Canada. Their aim was to engage key members of Montréal’s French and English communities to support the creation of an addiction treatment program.

“In the fall of 1969, amid discussions for the organization of addiction treatment, my mother asked me to attend a meeting in her place,” says Howlett. “Ultimately, this event ended up being the birthplace of Portage and I accepted to chair this new initiative.”

The team knew the success of this project would require unwavering community support, and it was here that Alphonsine Paré-Howlett’s investment proved to be providential. Her ability to bring people together and her vast network of knowledge made all of the difference. Portage became a true community alliance in Montréal to bring about change.

At that first meeting, Portage’s idea was to create a new rehabilitation program based on the Daytop Village therapeutic community approach, which aimed to rehabilitate among other drug-addicted prisoners in the New York City correctional system.

Portage, named as such to express its mission to find a way around an obstacle to continue its journey, saw its first three years devoted to design, research, implementation of services and fundraising.

“In the fall of 1972, members of Portage identified a lakeside estate 45 minutes from Montréal, in Prévost in the Laurentians, as a perfect location for establishing the first residential centre,” says Howlett. “It was on the shores of majestic Lac Echo, after extensive renovations, the centre opened its doors on February 14, 1973, welcoming its first residential clients.”

“This date, a day of metamorphosis, will go down in the organization’s history and forever commemorate the men and women who came through those doors for the very first time,” says Howlett.

Fifty years later, Portage has 12 rehabilitation programs across Canada and helps close to 2000 people yearly. Driven by a vision that social action can save lives, Portage will continue its unwavering commitment to helping people with addiction.
“This anniversary has great sentimental meaning for me because it is also an opportunity for me to honour the memory of my mother, who helped launch this great project.”

As part of its 50th anniversary, Portage has launched its national awareness campaign, AddictionTraps, which highlights how quickly addiction can lead to isolation and showcases a youth trapped by his dependencies and unable to escape the vicious cycle of addiction.

Substance abuse affects us all. A recently published report by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) states “In 2020, we estimate substance use (SU) cost people in Canada more than $49 billion and led to the loss of over 200 lives every day”. Between healthcare costs, loss of productivity, changing consumption patterns and increasingly toxic illicit and unregulated drugs, the report details the heavy human and financial toll of substance use. The work accomplished by Portage produces a positive ripple effect throughout society.

Today, Portage remains an innovator in the field of dependency treatment. “In addition to organizing a scientific symposium broadcast to over ten countries last September, Portage also launched its first mobile application to support people completing their rehabilitation program,” says Howlett. “This new application symbolizes the modernization of the organization’s service offering and is built on our best practices regarding support and social reintegration.”

Through the years, Portage has pioneered many unique rehabilitation programs tailored to various clientele, including youth, adults, pregnant women, women with young children, and adults with mental health disorders. Based on the therapeutic community approach, Portage programs foster the strengths and skills of individuals to help them live lives of sobriety filled with dignity, self-respect and achievement.

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