Substance abuse and interrelated mental health issues have had, and continue to have, a strong negative impact on First Nations, Metis, and Inuit (FNMI) communities throughout Canada. Whether on the reservation or on the streets of Toronto, FNMI men and women who could be vital to their families and communities are struggling with drugs and alcohol. Many of these men and women, young and old, attribute their battles with substance abuse to issues of trauma such as:
- Systemic abuse and discrimination
- Alcoholism/addiction in their families of origin
- Intergenerational and childhood trauma
- Loss of traditions and attempted erasure of cultural identity by the dominant culture
- Tragic events and abuses such as Residential Schools
While Premier Wynne has officially apologized to FNMI communities, words only go so far; there is a long way to go for those who have suffered generations upon generations of cultural and physical genocide. With a past informed by such pain, FNMI communities often face barriers to moving forward. Substance abuse is one such barrier.
Addiction Recovery to Meet the Needs of Indigenous Peoples
While there are proven strategies and methods around getting sober and staying that way, it’s important to acknowledge the unique experience and issues of concern to FNMI people when it comes to substance abuse recovery. Understanding that people who identify as First Nations, Metis, or Inuit belong to a systemically marginalized group, and coming from a recovery model based on an anti-oppressive framework, ensures our recovery program at Renascent can provide an excellent treatment option for FNMI people.
While some government-sponsored addiction recovery programs for FNMI Canadians are strictly for those who identify as Indigenous, at Renascent, we have woven programming into our addiction recovery services to better meet the needs of FNMI youth, women, people with mental health issues, and other people of proud heritage who are struggling with the destructive effects of alcohol and drug addictions.
Abstinence-Based Approach to Recovery with a Healing Difference
Our abstinence based approach to substance abuse recovery is founded on the Twelve Steps philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous, whose principles are entirely compatible with FNMI teachings. Renascent facilitates recovery, education and prevention relating to alcohol and drug addictions through a full range of individual and group programs as well as services for individuals and families. Taking a spiritual approach to recovery as well as a very practical evidence-based approach, has helped over 45,000 people recover in the past four decades – and helped countless families heal from the searing effects of drug abuse on their lives.
Our fully certified counsellors have lived experience with addictions and embrace a strengths-based approach to recovery wherein the client’s core abilities and beliefs are true assets to recovery. Thus, we welcome First Nations, Metis, and Inuit clients who wish to integrate their culture, traditional healing methods, spiritual practices, and beliefs into the healing process.
Your pathway to recovery begins at Renascent. Call to find out how.
by Julie B.
I’m an urban Aboriginal person who was raised by a single mother of European descent.
Although I did beadwork and occasionally went to powwows, I didn’t subscribe to − and was never really exposed to − any traditional Anishinaabe cultural practices or spiritual beliefs.
The only spiritual connection I had when I was drinking was that I worshipped my next bottle of wine. I drank heavily for over 20 years, and drank daily for the last 10. I was high-functioning for someone with extremely low expectations. For a long time, I knew that I was an alcoholic, but I didn’t care.
Then one day I decided I wanted to live. When I finally sought treatment, I was drinking almost constantly from the time I woke up to the time I passed out at night. I had tried to stop repeatedly but I couldn’t, and that scared the hell out of me.
When I first got sober, almost three years ago, I lost my connection to alcohol. Alcohol had been my constant companion and best friend, even though it was slowly killing me. I had abandoned my friends, family and myself in order to keep drinking. When I finally faced the world in sobriety, I felt empty and alone. As a result, I had to learn how to connect with people and myself all over again − or perhaps for the first time.
I first found a spiritual connection on a camping trip. I started taking photos of a chipmunk I’d befriended, and I was so lost in joy that I didn’t feel the craving to drink.
I also went back to university. The first class I took was an introduction to Indigenous studies. While learning of the history of my ancestors, I often cried in class. But I also learned about the Indigenous beliefs of living in concert with nature, and how everything is interconnected. I learned about ceremony and resilience. I went to a powwow, where I just cried for all the trauma that my ancestors had endured. However, I also felt like I didn’t belong. I didn’t know anything about the dances, the regalia or the ceremonies, so I decided to learn more.
As I continued my formal education, I also started going to community events. I asked Elders for guidance on becoming more involved. Mostly, I just hung around, observed ceremonies, and copied what other people were doing.
The first time I smudged, I felt a connection to something I can’t fully understand. When I was surrounded by the smoke from the burning medicines, I felt a weight lift off my shoulders. It felt like going home to a place I’d never been before. I can’t explain it − I just felt better.
I went to see a traditional counsellor for the first time right before a camping trip. After my counselling session, I had the most intensely spiritual moment of my life. Arriving at the campground as the sun was setting, I climbed a hill near the lake to make an offering and say a prayer. I had never prayed before, so I brought a photocopy of a prayer to the Great Spirit that I had grabbed from the lobby on my way out from meeting the counsellor. The prayer asked for strength and intelligence − not to conquer my enemies, but to fight the enemy within.
I left an offering of berries by a tree stump and walked down a granite slab to the water’s edge. I was alone, overlooking a quiet beach. I closed my eyes for a few minutes to meditate.
When I opened them and looked across the water, a deer came out of the woods and stared right at me. I instantly felt a happiness that I had not felt in years. I was in awe, and crying tears of joy. Then another deer came out of the woods! I couldn’t believe I was the only one there to see this. The deer were drinking from the lake, and one of them was playing with a frog. They were peaceful and carefree − two qualities that had been missing from my life since I quit drinking.
It’s difficult to describe, but those few minutes felt magical and life-changing. I don’t know if it was the result of the offering and prayer or just a coincidence, but I do know it was the most spiritual experience of my life. I also know that it never would have happened if I hadn’t gotten sober. I had to become fully present in my life in order to experience that connection with nature.
This year I plan to celebrate National Aboriginal Day with my friends, and if I cry at the powwow, they will be tears of gratitude for the gift of being alive.
by Christine Smillie-Adjarkwa
Most of the problems that have led to high rates of alcohol and substance abuse among Aboriginal people are generational; problems set in motion several generations ago and unknowingly inherited by descendants. Consequently, emotional and spiritual deprivation, violence, poverty, alcohol and drug abuse and despair became predictable outcomes to systematic, multi-generational oppression.
~ Eduardo Duran, Healing the Soul Wound: Counselling With American Indians and Other Native Peoples
Traditional Aboriginal Healing Methods
In treatment programs where they have control, Aboriginal people in Canada are increasingly introducing a variety of spiritual and healing practices, asserting that embracing their culture assists in achieving sobriety. These programs assert Aboriginal identity, and stress traditional cultural beliefs and practices as a form of treatment in themselves.
The Aboriginal way of treating alcohol and substance abuse encompasses more than the biological and experiential explanation provided by mainstream medicine. Traditional healers perceive alcohol as a spirit that has been destructive to Aboriginal ways of life. It is believed that the alcohol “spirits” continually wage war within the spiritual arena and this is where the healing needs to start. Most Elders and Healers would agree that reconnecting to culture, community and spirituality is the way for Aboriginal people to heal. Because alcohol and drug abuse conflicts with the traditional cultural beliefs about courage, humility, generosity, and family honour, cultural involvement and practices can serve as both a preventative and curing agent in alcohol and drug abuse treatment.
The Sweat Lodge
Most Aboriginal people would agree that the purpose of the Sweat Lodge ceremony is to purify the body, mind and spirit so that a new sense of self may be present. The Sweat Lodge ceremony is the most widely used ceremony of Aboriginal alcohol and drug treatment programs that focus on traditional Aboriginal healing methods.
While the Sweat Lodge itself is simple to describe, it is beyond this writer’s ability to adequately convey the ultimate culmination of spiritual, mystical and psychic expression of the Sweat Lodge ceremony. Sweat Lodge ceremonies can be a beneficial aid to alcohol and substance abuse treatments for Aboriginal people for four reasons. First the Sweat Lodge ceremony gives individuals a sense of who they are even if they no longer speak an Aboriginal language or are the products of years of residential schooling and Christian proselytizing, since Sweat Lodges are a symbol and cultural marker of being “Aboriginal”. Secondly, the physical sensation of undergoing a sweat is of detoxification and cleansing, which gives the participant a psychological and spiritual association with purification, renewal and a fresh start. Thirdly, participating in a Sweat Lodge ceremony is a tangible and decisive act, which requires mental and physical strength. When one emerges from the ceremony they may feel a sense of accomplishment, in this way the ceremony provides an atmosphere in which it may be easier for an addicted person to moderate or abstain from alcohol or drugs. Lastly, many people who conduct the Sweat Lodge ceremonies are also ex-drinkers and drug users and they provide alternate role models to the stereotype of the “drunken Indian”.
Combining Aboriginal Healing Methods with Mainstream Methods
Western medicine and Traditional Healing methods can work together in Aboriginal communities to combat addictions. By reclaiming their identity through Traditional Healing methods, many Aboriginal people have overcome alcoholism and have found serenity. By learning about their culture and being proud of whom they are, recovering addicts and alcoholics are much more able to resist the temptation of giving into their old habits.
It is important for Aboriginal people to learn and understand that the primary reason Aboriginal people are so afflicted with addictions, poverty, abuse, etc. is that the traditional way of life was taken from them. This experience instils a sense of hopelessness, and loss which leads to grieving.
So many of us were the victims of those who wanted to destroy that identity by starving it of nourishment. That seed is the truth of our existence. It validates my Indian-ness. Indian forever. They couldn’t destroy my Indian-ness no matter what they did. It’s like that little seed is my spirit. You can trounce on it, starve it, beat it, humiliate it, degrade it, abuse it but you will never kill it or extinguish it. Even when I tried to stamp it out myself, it manifested itself as anxiety, panic attacks, depression, and alcoholism and drug addiction.
~ Doyle Arbogast, Wounded Warriors: A Time for Healing
If people in mainstream society really want to help Aboriginal people overcome their addictions, they have to learn about Aboriginal culture, and do things on Aboriginal peoples’ terms. One cannot learn about Aboriginal people or any group of people from a book, culture must be experienced and appreciated if one really wants to understand it.
Excerpted from Aboriginal Alcohol Addiction in Ontario Canada: A Look at the History and Current Healing Methods That Are Working In Breaking the Cycle of Abuse. The article can be found in its entirety here. Reprinted by permission of the author.
We participate in a cycle of seasons. Every four years when it looks like everything has turned to crap, it really hasn’t. It’s part of the natural growth process for each of us to go through a winter season. One season is not better or worse than the other. Each season has its purpose. So we should not dread winter. The winter time is a time for renewal.