Beverly Sabourin and Peter Globensky.

Beverly Sabourin and Peter Globensky.

Different Paths – Common Ground
First Nations and Addictions – When it Hits Close to Home

By Peter Globensky and Beverly Sabourin

We have all heard the stories. Most of us have been touched by them – if not in our hearts then in our guts. Heart-wrenching narratives of substance abuse and addictions in First Nations communities which have destroyed lives and torn apart the families who loved those lives. Tragic stories that have been recounted through tears of pain and sorrow. Endings or outcomes that could have been different if only, if only, if only. If only the parents had not suffered the legacy of residential schools, the hopelessness of youth suicides, the life-limiting prospects of welfare and no work, the scourge of alcohol, the too-easy availability of drugs and the illusion of easy money, the systemic and institutional racism and the marginalization of Aboriginal peoples by successive governments. Why would anyone not want to escape this whirlpool into that black hole of peaceful oblivion?
A bleak picture you may say? More doom and gloom from the Indigenous side of town? If this were a tract from a dispassionate observer, we could agree. But it isn’t. It is the emotional reaction we had had upon hearing that a member of our extended family had quietly descended into that black hole reaching for that blurred and tarnished brass ring of escape on that dizzying carousel of drug addiction. It was the magical combination of love, luck and good fortune that she was stopped before she took that final step over the precipice. She is now in treatment.
By any proportionate demographic or statistic, and for the reasons cited above, our Aboriginal brothers and sisters are far more likely to fall victim to the siren songs of alcohol and drug addiction. The numerous, varied and fully subscribed treatment programs primarily oriented to Aboriginal Canadians are a visible testament to this scourge. They serve as a beacon back to reality no matter how harsh that reality may be. While confronting the demons and filling the emptiness is an essential part of recovery, as in all matters of health care, prevention should be given as much prominence as treatment. And that obligation cannot be placed upon over-worked and underfunded Aboriginal police forces. That the Nishnawbe-Aski Police Services Drug Unit were able to seize Percs and other drugs headed for Eabametoong First Nation earlier this month was as much a result of luck as it was hard-work.
While acknowledging the importance of implementing broad-stroke policies such as those outlined in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, there are “boots on the ground” actions that do not require protracted periods of consultation and negotiation. Part of the responsibility for controlling the in-flow of narcotics into remote First Nations communities, particularly those where access is controlled or restricted, can and should be placed directly at the feet of these same First Nations. Even communities adjacent to urban centres, like the Fort William First Nation can exercise a far greater degree of substance control. Who among the leadership of these communities are completely ignorant of those in the community who traffic in despair? Are vehicle or baggage spot-checks out of the question? If this is indeed sovereign territory, why isn’t the traditional practice of banishment not brought back into use for local traffickers.
But the lion’s share of responsibility for controlling the distribution and re-distribution of narcotics must be placed squarely on the padded shoulders of our health care system. In dispensing 30 tablets of percs to control pain, why is Dr. Smith prohibited from knowing that Dr. Jones prescribed double that amount to the same patient yesterday? The government cites “privacy concerns” which is a ruse at best. We trust our medical professionals with our lives. So why is it that we cannot trust them with our fully disclosed medical records? Surely that would be a much needed first step in controlling the trafficking in narcotics. One does not kill the noxious plant by removing the leaf – you go directly to the root! Then again, we have to see the dots before we connect them!

Beverly Sabourin, recently retired as the Vice-Provost of Aboriginal Initiatives at Lakehead University, is a member of the Pic Mobert Ojibwe. Peter Globensky is a former senior policy advisor on Aboriginal Affairs in the Office of the Prime Minister and recently retired as CEO of the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment. They invite your comments at basa1@shaw.ca