From November 19-21, Crees from various entities gathered in Val-d’Or to brainstorm ways to address one of the biggest issues in Eeyou Istchee today: addiction.

According to Sol Awashish, one of the main organizers of this year’s Addictions Summit, the event was about finding new solutions.

“The idea was to come up with action plans from the input and priorities outlined by the different groups we put together throughout the Cree Nation,” said Awashish.

Nine groups were created at the event consisting of some entities or departments that were paired together, like the police and the Department of Justice and Correctional Services, or representatives from organizations like the Cree Health Board and Social Services of James Bay, the Elders and the Cree School Board.

As Awashish explained, a facilitator and a note taker were provided to represent each group and then these individuals were sent around to work on a brainstorming session with each of the other groups. The end result was to produce a list of priorities and suggestions that was brought back to each group so the rest of the communities could see what was suggested by that particular group.

Awashish, who was working for the Elders group, went to the eight other groups to get feedback on what each group or entity would like to see the Elders contribute to the communities in terms of drug-and-alcohol-abuse prevention.

“At the end of the second day, I went back to the Elder group and told them what the other groups wanted them to do based on the priorities outlined by each of the groups. We then needed to determine whether they agreed with the recommendations and if they could see these things happening or how they could put this into action. That was the whole idea of the summit,” said Awashish.

From there, action plans were developed to be taken back to these departments after the event.

The hope with conducting these brainstorming events for each of the departments is that eventually the entire Cree Nation will be able to work in concert with each other instead of individual groups doing a little bit on their own for a large and overwhelming issue.

In 2010, a Cree Regional Working Group on Addictions was created to look at these issues and coordinate the summit. According to Awashish, the ability of those who participated in the summit to actually make an impact on addictions will depend on the commitments made there. The Working Group will now be focusing on keeping in touch with each of these groups to follow up on whether or not the groups will be able to incorporate any of the strategies or suggestions that came out of the summit.

While Awashish said some of these groups may have to have the plans approved by their department heads, he hopes that this can be dealt with quickly as the Working Group will be setting up a website to show the rest of the Cree Nation who is working on what and how the issues are being addressed.

“The issue of addictions has not been a priority of any one group. We have talked about it but it is not a priority for a lot of people. The problem is that we have come to a point where we have normalized addictions. When we see someone drunk on the street, we laugh at them and we see it as normal. But this is not normal,” said Awashish.

“We need to recognize that though this has become part of our lives, it is time to make a change.”

Discussing the impact that the summit had on his own department, KC MacLeod from the Justice and Corrections department spoke about how much substance abuse plays a role in the Eeyou Istchee justice system.

“Addiction contributes to Crees being in the justice system for sure. If you talk to the Eeyou Istchee Police and get some of their stats, you are probably looking in the high 80s, maybe in the high 90s percentage of the files that involve either alcohol or drugs. It’s the same thing when you look at the people who come into contact with the justice system. That is taking aside youth protection cases and young offender cases but even some of the young offender cases involve alcohol and drugs,” said MacLeod.

MacLeod went on to say that his department would be working on prevention with the youth as part of a strategy to keep Crees from getting involved in the justice system in the first place.

It was revealed at the summit that the age at which Cree children will begin to experiment with alcohol and drugs is now as low as eight or nine.

“What we are finding is that the age at which Crees are getting involved with drugs and alcohol is getting younger. So we are saying that prevention needs to happen at a younger age and some of the information needs to be put out there. We need to abandon the idea that they are too young to know about these things because they already know about them from the internet, TV and movies,” said MacLeod.

“We need to give them some of the tools and equip them with information and that is one of the things that we are trying to do in our department. On the corrections side, we are trying to ensure that the individuals who are incarcerated at the moment are getting the treatment they need while they are inside.”

The new chair of the CBHSSJB, Bella Moses Petawabano, delivered a powerful speech about the role of the Health Board in addressing addictions and what she personally will champion in her new role.

“At the Health Board we have avoided the problem,” said Moses Petawabano. “If you don’t believe me, then look at the resources we have in capital projects compared to what we have in mental-health services. I’m not blaming anyone more than myself when I say this because I have been involved in this area for most of my life and some of that as a senior manager.”

She also said that this summit had come at a “turning point” in her career as chair.

Later, the Nation spoke with Moses Petawabano about how the CBHSSJB will be making changes when it comes to dealing with substance abuse and related mental-health issues.

“The Addictions Summit happened at the appropriate time as I am starting my new role as Cree Health Board chair. My campaign platform included improving access to psychosocial services and creating an open dialogue with Eeyouch,” she said.

“This summit was about bringing people together from all over Eeyou Istchee. Different organizations and entities identified priorities and discussed ways of working together to address issues of addictions.

“I have always believed that we can take concrete actions if we all work together and this was a good start.

“A single entity cannot take on a challenge such as addictions. We all need to commit to achieve results that will enable our population to overcome these conditions permanently,” added Moses Petawabano.

Moses Petawabano said that a great deal of support has already been added by allocating more resources to creating positions to help clients who need these services. As well, continuous improvements include proper training for the staff and to develop appropriate programming as well as improving the programming already being delivered. She said there was also a plan to provide the support necessary for those finishing treatment.

“We still do not have the appropriate facilities in the communities to help people with addictions and for a majority of Eeyouch who want to access to treatment they have to leave their communities.

“These people are for the most part those who can communicate in English or French. The only means available to our population which is in the community is what is presently offered through the Waskaganish Mobile Treatment programming and these are offered in Cree,” said Moses Petawabano.

Then there is the issue of the family. Moses Petawabano believes that each family member needs to understand that addiction is a disease and that each individual will need ongoing support from within the family and the community.

And so, there are plans to build a traditional healing lodge within Eeyou Istchee so that addicts and their families can work on healing together.

“Once this has been accomplished, I am confident that the programming that will be developed will meet the needs of our population. Services will be available in the Cree language as well as being culturally appropriate and it will also accommodate family members.

“In addition, the location of our healing centre will be in a traditional site near a Cree community,” said Moses Petawabano.

She said there is already a plan in place to deliver on the healing lodge, provide needed services, and to address mental-health needs for the communities.

The recent Health Agreement saw the negotiation for the healing lodge. There are plans for improvement to the kinds of frontline services available in each community and the CBHSSJB is planning to increase and improve regional and specialized services for specific clientele as well as providing the support structure to the local teams.

In addition to that, there are also plans to assure that Cree methods are employed in these programs. Moses Petawabano said that a mental health steering committee was recently created to develop a comprehensive mental health plan.

And so while the issue of substance abuse and addiction may play a role in the everyday lives of Crees, the powers that be within the Cree Nation are joining forces to fight the devastation that the disease brings to Cree families.