British Columbia

Meet the people putting Indigenous culture at the heart of addictions treatment

Indigenous people are overrepresented in the illicit drug overdose crisis and these Indigenous academics and front-line workers say reconnecting to culture is part of the healing process.

Reconnecting Indigenous people with their traditions is crucial for healing, advocates say

Lexi Fisher, a social worker, works at Kilala Lelum Health Centre in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Indigenous advocates and front-line workers are pushing to include more traditional ways of healing — conversing with elders, smudging, sweat lodges and drum circles — into substance abuse treatment. 

According to the First Nations Health Authority, Indigenous people are five times more likely to experience an overdose than non-Indigenous people. Advocates and experts say this is because they face past and continuing colonial trauma. And reconnecting to culture long suppressed by governments, schools and churches is crucial to turning the situation around.

Lisa Robinson is the executive director at Kackaamin Family Development Centre in Port Alberni on Vancouver Island where they offer treatment with Western medicine and traditional Indigenous ways of healing. They also offer treatment to the entire family.

"Our whole philosophy is built around rebuilding our Indigenous model, our family model, we're trying to pull people back together and reconnect them," she said. 

"Looking at everybody, everybody's connected and one so everybody needs to get help and get that understanding of why things broke down."

Lisa Robinson's treatment centre brings in folks from all over B.C. and Yukon. She says she tries to help people reconnect in a different way. (Emilee Gilpin)

Robinson is no stranger to intergenerational trauma. She was dropped off at a residential school when she was four or five years old, and her mother was before her and her grandmother before that. She struggled with substance abuse for over six years, but with the help of elders and educators she was able to change her life in her 20s. She ended up going to the University of Toronto to complete a master's degree in social work where she specialized in Indigenous trauma. 

"I've tried to turn the pain I've endured into action and pass it on."

She said she'd do this work even if she wasn't paid for it.

"I've seen the transformations in people where they know they can do better and they can live a life that's more meaningful, and so that's kind of what I'm about and I'll do that until I pass over," she said. 

Lexi Fisher is from the Ktunaxa Nation in southeastern B.C. and she's a social worker at Kilala Lelum Health Centre in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. She said the mental health-care system that exists wasn't built for Indigenous people and it needs to change. Kilala Lelum has doctors and nurses to heal physical ailments, but elders and traditional medicine are needed too, she said.

"They help heal the mind, spirit and emotions, and I think that that is what we're lacking in the system right now and that is where we're trying to change it, which is meeting the people where [they're] at and recognizing that one system doesn't fit all."

Chris Livingstone, left, a founding member of the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society is pictured talking with Norm Leech, the executive director for the Vancouver Aboriginal Community Policing Centre. (Missy Johnson/CBC)

The first Indigenous PhD graduate from the University of British Columbia's School of Community and Regional Planning healing comes to her work through a sense of community. Lyana Patrick is from the Stellat'en First Nation in northern B.C., and is an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University. She says the connection to land is crucial.

"And so in the work that I've done, particularly around addictions and mental health, providing opportunities for people to come together to create a community and to be able to be outside and connecting to the land is the foundation, I think, of a pathway to healing."

Lyana Patrick sits in the communal garden in front of Vancouver City Hall. 'Public health and planning are actually very much intimately connected,' she says. (Missy Johnson/CBC)

After health-care professionals were accused of trying to guess the alcohol levels of various Indigenous patients, the minister of health asked former judge Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond to investigate. She produced a report in November 2020, called In Plain Sight, that found racism, stereotyping and discrimination against Indigenous peoples is widespread in B.C.'s health-care system.

Dr. Nel Wieman, the first Indigenous female psychiatrist in Canada, said conversations around anti-racism are happening more than ever before in her 20 years of practicing.

"Typically these conversations start up pretty quickly and they die down pretty quickly but what we're seeing is this sustained momentum, and I believe, commitment to transforming the health system and making things safer and better," said Wieman, who is also acting deputy chief medical officer of B.C.'s First Nation Health Authority.

To listen to the full series, Reconnecting Saves Lives, click here: