Matawa First Nations leaders are proposing a $34 million strategy to halt prescription drug abuse — a strategy that would fund addiction and mental health workers in nine communities.

And perhaps, most importantly, the plan would include ongoing care.

Breakdown of the costs for Matawa First Nations drug strategy:

Of the $33.6 million proposed to roll out the plan, about $20 million would be allocated to the nine First Nations that fall under the Matawa umbrella.

There would be more than $10 million for two residential treatment/healing centres at Constance Lake and Eabametoong, and about $1.8 million for Matawa regional initiatives.

Diane Andrews, an alcohol and drug abuse worker at Constance Lake First Nation, said many people return from addiction treatment, only to relapse, because there is no aftercare in the community.

"When you go to treatment … you're vulnerable and you open up and you start releasing some of the hurts," Andrews said. "You know if you only go for 21 days or even six weeks that's not enough."

The Matawa proposal also emphasizes prevention. They presented the plan yesterday, at the end of a three-day conference at Long Lake 58 First Nation.

It was an emotional three days for many of the participants, during which time several people shared their stories about addiction, pain and the struggle to be free from drug abuse.


Members of nine First Nations walk in a circle of solidarity to wrap up a three day conference to tackle prescription drug abuse. The conference was held in the community hall in Long Lake 58 First Nation. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

Big dreams

But the gathering was also about hope, said Francine Pellerin, the health director for Matawa First Nations.

"We have a big dream, but that's what it's going to take in order for us to work with our people who are struggling with ... prescription drugs right now," she said.

With a price tag of close to $34 million, the dream is a big one. That money would pay for dedicated staff in each of Matawa's nine First Nations to treat addictions, manage withdrawal and provide mental health services.

It would also create residential treatment centres located in Constance Lake and Eabametoong, as well as reinforce cultural pride and education to help prevent drug abuse in the first place.   

To pay for it all, Matawa will approach the federal government and make a pitch for private donors like Ring of Fire mining companies, who may want to invest in an addiction-free workforce.

Some key elements of the proposal to halt prescription drug abuse:

  • Bring in an addiction counsellor, mental health counsellor, detoxification and withdrawal management attendant, prevention and a cultural intervention worker in the communities.
  • Avoid parachuting workers in — professionals will be encouraged to mentor and train people within the communities.
  • Establish safe houses for recovery. Because of housing overcrowding, it's difficult for people to go through withdrawal management or treatment at home.  There could be several people in one house suffering from addictions.  
  • Recognize the role of cultural oppression as an underlying factor in drug abuse in First Nations.  The strategy would reinforce cultural pride and help youth connect with their culture, including connecting with the land. 
  • Provide emphasis on education and getting people healthy so they can take job opportunities and live better lives.
  • Build two residential treatment centres within First Nation communities.  One would be at Eabametoong First Nation. Constance Lake First Nation could retrofit an existing building for a healing centre.
  • Provide aftercare for people who have gone through treatment, as well as ongoing support to deal with the underlying issues that led to addiction in the first place and prevent relapse.
  • Chiefs would have to take this proposal back to their communities. Each Chief can tailor their own strategies to meet their specific needs.  Each First Nation is already working with limited resources to try to tackle drug abuse in some way, such as a offering a family healing program or medical services to manage withdrawal symptoms.