Mental health and substance abuse are the top health priorities for First Nations across B.C., says Grand Chief Doug Kelly, chair of the First Nations Health Council.

Hundreds of people, including elders, community leaders, educators and care providers, are in Vancouver to talk about how best to meet those mental health and wellness needs at the first conference of its kind hosted by the B.C. First Nations Health Authority. 

The two-day agenda is packed with sessions on a range of topics, from Indigenous harm reduction strategies to how communities are addressing incidents of sexual abuse to implementing Jordan's Principle, which is supposed to ensure Indigenous children receive medical care first and who pays for it is decided later.

"I'm full of good feelings and I'm full of hope because there's 600 leaders and caregivers that want to make a difference," Kelly said in his keynote address.

"We're dealing with some very difficult things."

Those difficulties include the number of children in provincial government care, suicides and the disproportionate number of First Nations people dying in the ongoing opioid overdose crisis.

'Resiliency comes from love'

Kelly said at the root of those tragedies is more than a century of assimilation policies and racism and in his view, the best way to plant the seeds of resiliency in communities is through love.

"Now it's time to work … to put a plan together so the seeds that you plant, in your children, in your grandchildren, will be well-tended with unconditional love, well-tended with a future full of hope, a future full of opportunity."

Those at the conference are there to learn more about how the health authority can support them in meeting specific needs and to share successes so people can learn from their experiences.

'It's important that we talk about these difficult things because if we don't start talking about them, how can the healing really start?' - Mark Matthew, First Nations Health Authority

The conversations are rooted in tangible solutions — like how a nation can ensure that people get access to opioid substitution therapies when there isn't a doctor or pharmacy in the community, or what technology is available to provide access to mental health services.

In his closing statements on Wednesday, Mark Matthew, manager of engagement and co-ordination for the health authority, commended those who shared with the attendees, particularly those who spoke in the last session of the day about sexual abuse in communities.

"It's important that we talk about these difficult things because if we don't start talking about them, how can the healing really start?" he asked.