New harm-reduction program helps First Nation communities heal – The London Free Press
Seven stone pillars arranged in a circle form a monument in Chippewas of the Thames First Nation.
Each pillar represents one of the Seven Grandfather Teachings — respect, love, truth, bravery, wisdom, honesty and humility — with each teaching etched on one side of the pillar.
The other side of the pillars are filled with thousands of names that belong to the many people who attended Mount Elgin Industrial Institute, a residential school that once stood on the same grounds as the monument.
“People feel a lot of pain here,” said Kimberly Fisher, the health director at the Chippewa Health Centre.
She said the residential school is the source of significant trauma that still exists among survivors, and said those traumas have even grown to become intergenerational.
“It’s not something we can ever really forget,” Fisher said. “It’s important to remember what happened but also find ways to move past that . . . (and) heal.”
She noted that for many, the trauma and grief they face can manifest as issues with mental health or substance abuse. On top of that, other traumas such as death, car accidents and suicide have been difficult for community members to deal with.
But for the first time, help is just a phone call away for residents struggling with addiction and mental health crises in area First Nations communities.
On Monday, a new harm reduction program based in Chippewas of the Thames First Nation launched to help residents of Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, Oneida Nation of the Thames and Munsee-Delaware Nation who are dealing with substance abuse.
The program is managed by a cultural outreach team that will go to community members on request with supplies like clean needles, sterile water, cooking pots, sharps disposal boxes and information about safe drug use.
Community members can call a hotline — at 1-833-289-0544 — between the hours of 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. every day to request supplies.
“We want to keep community members safe,” Fisher said. “We always knew substance abuse was a problem in our community. . .this is about being non-judgemental and giving people the help they need.”
Fisher said the hope is that people who use the program will begin to use more health resources and connect with their communities again.
This new program comes on the heels of another pilot program that tackles mental health crises for area First Nations community members that launched in June.
The mental health program provides members of the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, Aamjiwnaang First Nation, Kettle and Stony Point First Nation and Munsee-Delaware Nation with mental health services via a 24-hour crisis hotline.
The hotline — 1-866-289-0201 — is manned by trained staff who help people in crisis by talking to them, going to where they are if needed and connecting them with mental health resources like counselling services.
Fisher said the mental health program has proven to be lifesaving, with staff members responding to several crisis calls since its launch in June.
The harm reduction program — although only in its early stages — has also already proven to be successful, Fisher said, with residents calling to ask about it before it officially began.
Members of the Cultural Outreach team at the Chippewa Health Centre run the harm reduction program and underwent training with the Regional HIV/AIDS Connection and Middlesex-London Health Unit.
“It’s eye-opening to see it in real practice . . . to see it first-hand,” said Dean Doxtator, one of the team members and the co-ordinator for the cultural and crisis team. “It was good training . . . and we can teach that now.”
Doxtator said a program like this is needed in the community. He said many family members have been lost to overdoses.
“But we want to make sure the cultural side is very key here,” Doxtator said. “This is why it’s very important for our First Nations people to take that role on.”
Chippewa Health Centre health director Kimberly Fisher, left, and community health nurse Heather Nicholas said they are both excited to have harm reduction and mental health crisis programs available to Chippewas of the Thames community members. SHALU MEHTA/THE LONDON FREE PRESS
Community health nurse Heather Nicholas also said the team members will be equipped with the traditional medicines sage and tobacco to offer and distribute to people.
Nicholas said tobacco and sage was distributed in London through the Southwest Ontario Aboriginal Health Access Centre and she said she was told when people received the traditional medicines, they began to cry.
“They were coming to not only get the help they need but also wanted the tobacco and sage that they could take and carry with them,” Nicholas said. “Our people identify with their spirituality using tobacco to pray so it’s helping them in that way.”
A community overdose awareness day along with a sunrise ceremony and breakfast is also being held on Aug. 31 so community members can have a moment to come together, sing traditional songs and grieve for those they’ve lost.
Cynthia Tribe, the cultural outreach worker at the Chippewa Health Centre, said community members are happy to have a program like this available to them now.
“People are getting excited that there are people in this community, here, to help,” Tribe said.
Fisher said before, transportation was a barrier to receiving services like the ones in these programs. She said it’s difficult for many to make their way to London for help.
Fisher said that’s why a proposal was submitted to the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care to receive three-year funding for a mobile crisis unit. That funding went towards the creation of the harm reduction program.
The mental health crisis program received one-year funding that must be used by March of next year.
Both programs, Fisher said, work hand-in-hand.
“This is our opportunity to build inclusivity in our communities, we just want the best possible outcomes for everyone,” Fisher said.
Fisher noted that being able to take control of their own services is empowering.
“It’s truly groundbreaking and I’m excited to see how this all rolls out,” Fisher said. “If we can demonstrate that we need this and there’s an opportunity for this to continue we will advocate for that.”