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Paola Aquilini, left, with brothers Francesco and Roberto, right, after a press conference in Vancouver on Nov. 9, 2006.

JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail

An advocacy group that represents current and former drug users has filed a human rights complaint against Aquilini Investment Group alleging discrimination after the company refused to lease office space to the group.

Aquilini owns the Vancouver Canucks hockey team, which this year participated in a province-wide campaign aimed at eliminating stigma associated with substance use and addiction.

Jordan Westfall, executive director of the non-profit Canadian Association of People who Use Drugs (CAPUD), said the group was in the final stages of securing a sublease on a downtown Vancouver office space early this year when Michael White, a CBRE Limited realtor representing Aquilini, e-mailed with several questions.

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Among them, Mr. White asked whether there would be “active users” visiting the office, and asked Mr. Westfall to confirm that there would be no drugs on site, according to a Jan. 22 e-mail viewed by the Globe and Mail.

Mr. Westfall replied that there would be active users, as the group engages peers on policy work related to overdose prevention, but that there would be no drug use on site.

Mr. White then followed up by asking whether the “active users” would be “strung out.”

“The landlord’s big concern is regarding people who may be agitated and act in an inappropriate manner to visitors/tenants of the building or make them feel unsafe/uncomfortable,” the e-mail said.

Mr. Westfall replied that anyone participating in the group’s programming “is lucid and won’t cause trouble.”

On Jan. 25, Mr. White phoned Mr. Westfall to inform him the landlord would be declining CAPUD’s sublease due to the “optics” of renting to a drug user group, according to the complaint.

The complaint names Aquilini Investment Group, Mr. White, and Drew Hardisty, a commercial leasing manager with Aquilini Properties. The BC Human Rights Tribunal last week accepted the complaint in full and will notify the respondent. The matter could be dismissed, settled or moved toward a hearing.

David Stark, vice-president of operations at Aquilini Properties, said Wednesday that the company had not yet received the complaint but will investigate and respond promptly if and when it does.

“We take pride in being an inclusive company and landlord at all of our properties,” Mr. Stark wrote in an e-mail.

Dustin Klaudt, a lawyer at Power Law who is representing CAPUD, said the idea that all people who use drugs are somehow erratic or unsafe is the unfortunate product of personal prejudices.

“There are many people out there who use drugs who are functioning members of society,” Mr. Klaudt said. “To just say that there is a concern about people acting in a violent or inappropriate way, or making other people feel uncomfortable, is painting every person who uses drugs with that one brush, which is unfair. And discriminatory.”

In an interview, Mr. Westfall said the refusal was also hypocritical, as CAPUD had been consulted for the anti-stigma overdose awareness campaign launched by B.C.’s Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions in partnership with the Vancouver Canucks.

The province-wide campaign shows ordinary-looking people next to descriptors such as: “Co-worker. Teammate. Drug user. Hockey fan.” and aims to "discredit false stereotypes by showing that addiction can affect people from all walks of life,” according to a B.C. government press release from the campaign’s launch in January.

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“Companies do these campaigns to appear progressive to the public, but privately, they’ll also discriminate against people who use drugs just as quickly,” Mr. Westfall said.

CAPUD is seeking remedies including damages and orders that Aquilini and CBRE Limited develop “educational activities for their employees to improve their understanding of disability, the overdose crisis and the plight of people who use drugs and their obligations under the Human Rights Code.”

The group currently has members in nine Canadian provinces and is a regular fixture at drug policy conferences across the country, including the federal government’s opioid symposium held in Toronto last month.

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