Twelve High Chicks thanks regular guest contributor Tracy Curley for this article.
She’s been described by many in the medical cannabis community as an angel, but Jennifer Collett will usually just shrug off such compliments and start telling you about her patients and their need for dignified access. Jennifer is focused, her goal to convince provincial politicians that it is in their purview to provide access to clean, affordable medical cannabis for all patients across Canada.
A complementary health care practitioner from Peterborough, Ontario, and a mother of five with a warm, easy smile, Jennifer is probably one of the most dedicated and unrecognized activists I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. Her home is warm, and full of little giggles and the paddling of tiny feet. There’s no flash, just a donated laptop and up until she recently acquired a cell phone if you called Jennifer at home you had to get through her sons — the young gatekeepers protected their mom’s time and took messages for when she could call you back.
Formerly Chief Executive Officer and former Executive Vice-President of the Canadian Medical Cannabis Partners, Jennifer is the go-to for most patient advocates across Southern Ontario and Canada, doing countless hours of research and writing policy documents and proposals to all levels of government. Her compassionate work, supported through a network of activists and growers, has helped terminal and pediatric patients access information and medicine while Health Canada struggles to catch up to the needs of patients.
What most people recognize Jennifer as, though, is the preposterous woman who each year walks 140 kilometres from Peterborough to Toronto’s Queen’s Park to bring public awareness and speak to politicians about patients’ needs for dignified access to medical cannabis. This year she managed to take her goal just a few thousand steps further when she announced the walk would in fact change direction and head to Ottawa, adding more than 100 kilometres to her journey.
Why do I say people call this preposterous? Because, although Jennifer will tell you she does not do this alone, her team is small, and there is no glory at the end like for so many others who are celebrated in this community. Politicians renege, and the media and medical community have essentially ignored her. But every year, no matter the weather, the expense, the time or the strain it puts on her own fragile body, she walks.
My own schedule and health have never allowed me to show Jennifer the support I think she deserves, but this year I signed up to take part; even if I could only make it a few kilometres I wanted to help lighten her load.
I was hoping to make it to her during the second of eight days of the Fifth Annual Cannabian Freedom Walk but the route was inaccessible without a vehicle and I was not quite sure how I was going to make it happen. In came Jenn’s team: Tamara Cartwright-Poultis, Chief Executive Officer of CMCP, got in contact with patients’ rights activist Gary ‘Pipes’ Pallister and arranged to have him pick me up and bring me to the walk.
After coordinating schedules it was decided that the best course of action would be to join the Cannabian Freedom Walk Team close to the end of their journey outside of Ottawa, in Carleton Place.
Gary picked me up on the chilly morning of Sunday, September 20th, I bought us each a large coffee, and with my case of pre-rolled meds we started the four hour drive to meet the team.
Talking with Gary about Jennifer on the long ride, it became apparent the high regard in which he holds her. An accidental activist, Gary seems to be exorcising demons from his past by assisting angels on Earth, and of Jennifer he is voraciously protective. She seems to have given him, like others who’ve known her, hope and purpose.
Around 1:30 in the afternoon, we spotted vehicles slowly making their way along the shoulder of Highway 7 just outside of Carleton Place, Ontario. We pulled in behind them as I stuck my head out the passenger’s side window to call out, “Who needs a cookie?”
When Jenn realized who was behind her, she shouted her greetings and we met along the side of the highway for a much deserved hug. I joined Jennifer and another patient advocate, Sue, and we walked together for a few kilometres to the next off-ramp where hopefully the support vehicle that had been experiencing some radiator issues would be waiting for us.
We walked up the ramp but didn’t find the truck. After some initial discussion about continuing on to the next off-ramp, Jenn explained that she needed to feed the kids lunch and let them run around. It was then I realized that for the last seven days not only had Jenn been walking more than a marathon’s-distance a day, she’d been raising her family as well.
I watched as Jenn and her husband unloaded the kids and their well-packed car to feed them and the rest of the team. Sue’s partner was driving a minivan with a magnet on the side that identified him as a support vehicle. Jenn’s husband and their three boys were in their family sedan. Then there was Gary and me … that was it.
We started walking again and eventually met up with the driver of the aforementioned downed support vehicle. He moved on to the next ten-kilometre checkpoint as we continued along the route. We chatted for the next few kilometres as much as we could over the din of the traffic and large transport trucks zipping by us. There had been other walkers along the way but it was easily apparent that Jennifer was making this journey for much more than herself: each step she took was ‘for someone’. Eventually it was clear that I was slowing Jenn down; she asked if we minded if she hit her stride and in mere minutes — her strong, long legs carrying her — she was almost out of sight with the support vehicle following slowly behind her.
A few more kilometres along and a blister that had been forming on Sue’s foot for the last few hours finally burst. She climbed into Gary’s vehicle to ride to the next checkpoint. I was on my own.
One foot in front of the other I walked. I walked for the patients I have lost, I walked for the patients whose lives have improved, I walked for the patients still fighting for access and knowledge, and admittedly I walked for myself.
When I reached the sign that told me I had one more kilometre to go I gave the thumbs-up to Gary and Sue following behind me and, pulling on what energy I had left, I kept walking. By the time I reached the next off-ramp I was sweating, my legs and hips were cramping, and I’d started playing music on the phone I held in my hand to keep my pace going.
When Jen met me with a huge cheer and an even bigger hug at the end of my small part of this journey I was tearing up. I was done but the team wasn’t, so after some food and a cannabis-balm leg and foot rub I got into the vehicle. As the skies darkened Jennifer’s husband taped up his already badly bruised ankle and walked our final ten kilometres of the day.
After settling on a modest motel for the night, we took the kids to Wendy’s for supper before I headed to the Greyhound station for a long bus ride home.
I wish I could have been with them that final day, but my schedule didn’t allow for much and I am very grateful just to have been able to take part. I learned later that as the team got closer to Parliament Hill more patients joined the walk with Jennifer and her family. There were more people on the team this year, a little more attention, a few more ears were there to hear her words, but not enough.
I close with the words more people should have heard, ones I hope more people will hear now: Jennifer’s speech as given when she finally walked over 240 kilometres to deliver her message:
Thank you very much for sharing your time with us today. It is an honour to be standing here with these fine people, who brought the dignified Access proposal to the eyes of those who can make change happen.
The last 10 days has been an incredible example of determination and perseverance. I am so proud of this team. From hand to hand these patients and caregivers passed this proposal over 262 kms, with the intention of providing a structure of dignified access for ALL Canadians equally. One that will enable healthy and responsible choices around cannabis medicines.
The proposal we present respects the intelligence, education and ability, of our doctors, and includes education and a regulation that supports both the need for standardized medicines, and an individual’s choice for their own treatment. We offer a solution that is cost effective and beneficial to every community across this country.
It is natural to fear what we don’t know, however to pretend any longer that we do not know the benefits of cannabis as medicine, among it’s many other uses, that is not natural. Over half of the Canadian population has stated in various polls and surveys, that they wish for legalization. How that will be done is yet to be seen. What we know is this, Patients need life saving options now. This is life and death. Cannabis is the least toxic, most studied and one of the longest used medicinal plants we have and we need a Dignified Access.
We ask that our government make a committed effort to work for the implementation of this proposal, because it takes care of our most vulnerable and ensures a structure of safe access to this life saving medicine for those who NEED it most.
I want to thank every volunteer and sponsor who helped get this team and the proposal here to this moment. We would also like to take a moment to thank the media, for helping our voices to be heard.
These walks are an triumphant example of human spirit. What we have learned over the last 5 years, and especially this year throughout our 10 day journey on foot, is this;
There are many ways to use cannabis, but every way will help you get where you need to go, with a better quality of life in the end. We know what we need. We each know why we need it, and here, in the Dignified Access Proposal we have the solution to make it accessible for us all.
It was said to me by one of the founders of this initiative, that “this is a program designed by patients and caregivers, with compassion being the overall intention of it’s creation. The system is broken, plain and simple, and THIS is a doable solution.” That statement tells you why walked this proposal all this way to you today.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated with the relationship between CMCP and Jennifer Collett at time of publishing.