Thunder Bay

First Nations use traditions to tackle oxy problems

Remote First Nations in northern Ontario are designing their own programs to deal with an epidemic of OxyContin abuse gripping their communities.

Up to 80 per cent of the population on some reserves are hooked

Neskantaga Chief Peter Moonias and Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo agree that First Nations need a bigger share of the resources taken from their traditional lands to fund social programs such as treatment for prescription drug abuse. (Jody Porter/CBC)

Remote First Nations in northern Ontario are designing their own programs to deal with an epidemic of OxyContin abuse gripping their communities.

Leaders, counsellors and former addicts are sharing their successes and struggles this week at the Matawa First Nations "Back to our Roots" gathering in Neskantaga, 600 km north of Thunder Bay.

Sid O’Keese said he has a "personal vendetta against prescription drug abuse" that keeps him motivated as a clinical services supervisor in Eabametoong First Nation.

First Nations community leaders say they are so overwhelmed providing critical care to drug addicts they don't have time to fill out funding proposals required to get government money for long-term treatment programs. (Jody Porter/CBC)

O’Keese said he has seen the devastation OxyContin has caused in the community of 1,300 and among his own family members.

In 2011, Eabametoong developed and funded its own residential treatment program that has served 125 clients.

Drug-related arrests in the community have dropped from 174 in 2009 to just 18 so far in 2012, O’Keese said.

‘We really, really, really need funding’

Now the community is adding an after-care component to its treatment, taking recovering addicts out on the land to re-introduce them to traditional skills such as hunting and trapping. O’Keese said it’s a critical part of the healing journey.

"My grandfather told me, ‘the land wants to give you all this healing, it wants to help you with your struggles’, but we forgot it," O’Keese said.

"I’m not a traditionalist myself but I really do believe that the Creator gave us what we have here, we don’t have to go way down south to get that."

Still, with all the success, O’Keese said the waiting list for treatment remains steady at 40 people.

"We need facilities," he told people gathered for the conference. "We really, really, really need funding."

Health Canada is providing money for some programs in remote communities on a case-by-case basis.

‘Fund a whole program’

"We’re waiting to see more proposals and we’ll assess those proposals and respond to them accordingly with funding support, if it fits the criteria and we’re working with the community," Health Canada’s regional director Keith Conn told delegates.

But some community leaders say they are so overwhelmed providing critical care to addicts, they don’t have time to fill out funding proposals.

"I sent you guys a proposal awhile back [and] you guys helped me with $10,000. But just to run one program is $63,000," Liza Moonias, from Marten Falls First Nation said during a question-and-answer period with Health Canada representatives.

"I was just wondering if you could help us fund a whole program. And not just me, all the other reserves too."

Conn responded: "It’s a large issue across the country, not just Ontario."

‘We’ll look after ourselves’

Neskantaga Chief Peter Moonias said he’s tired of begging government for money to improve the lives of his people.

"Self-reliance, that’s what this is all about," Moonias said.

"The government is broke, unless they steal from us, our resources, like they have been. We have to start thinking differently, right now."

Moonias said that different way of thinking means taking control of resource development in the area, such as the Ring of Fire mining project.

"Give us the resources that [government and mining companies are] taking out," he said. "Give us a share of the resources and we’ll look after ourselves. We don’t even have to ask the government for funding."

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo greets community members and delegates gathered in Neskantaga First nation for the Back to our Roots prescription drug abuse conference. (Jody Porter/CBC)

‘Hurtful, harmful, abusive relationship’

That approach got a big boost from Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo, who attended the conference.

"[Canada has] a thirst, an addiction for our resources that parallels the grip addictions have on individuals," Atleo said in a speech. "It’s a hurtful, harmful, abusive relationship."

Atleo said the government also has the classic addict’s denial about the consequences of exploiting resources that he said rightfully belong to First Nations.

He said that denial of rights has "hurt people. In fact, it has led to death, dying and great destruction in First Nations and a great gap in understanding in the rest of Canada."

Neskantaga Chief Peter Moonias said he’ll lay down his life to prevent further exploitation of the land his people rely on for their healing.

Atleo has vowed to join him in that fight.


Jody Porter

Senior Reporter

Jody Porter is a senior reporter based in Thunder Bay, Ont. She is the recipient of a Debwewin Citation from the Anishinabek Nation for excellence in reporting on First Nations issues and a Massey College Clarkson Laureate in recognition of public service.