02/26/2019 10:02 EST | Updated 03/01/2019 09:32 EST

Let Indigenous People Run Indigenous Addiction Treatment Programs: Advocates

The City of Toronto is calling on province and feds to provide more funding for Indigenous-led outreach in midst of opioid crisis.

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Brandi Nashkewa at the Seeking Safety program for trauma and substance abuse at the Native Women's Resource Centre of Toronto on Feb. 21, 2019.

Toronto — Sharon Reddick credits prayer and Indigenous teachings with saving her life.

Overwhelmed with the deep sorrow of losing her son in a 2014 shooting, Reddick withstood the urge to use the drugs she'd given up decades before. Instead she'd reach for her tobacco pouch and pray, or smudge with sage to clear her mind. She'd turn to Indigenous elders and traditions to help ground and guide herself.

"There was times when the (post-traumatic stress disorder) would kick in. I would see that casket. I would remember everything. I would take my tobacco and pray. I'd put my tobacco down and pray, and the PTSD would subside," said Reddick, a 61-year-old Metis and black Canadian.

She's in a better place now, a place she said she never thought she'd get to, and draws from this experience to help other Indigenous women as a trauma coordinator at the Native Women's Resource Centre of Toronto.

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Sharon Reddick leads the Seeking Safety class at the Native Women's Resource Centre of Toronto on Feb. 21, 2019.

Reddick leads Seeking Safety, a PTSD and substance abuse class that's rooted in its participants connecting with their Indigenous identity. Last Thursday night, Reddick and four other women encircled an altar with candles and sweetgrass, and shared their experiences coping with trauma, drug abuse and poverty.

The centre is one of the few places in Toronto where Indigenous women struggling with addiction can access traditional healing and cultural activities in a kind of sisterhood. It's the type of place the city wants to make more common in an effort to reduce overdoses and opioid-related deaths, which disproportionately affect Indigenous people.

"It's the stigma and past trauma, and not processing it, and having to live with it, and having it build up, build up, build up and then you want to numb the pain," Reddick said.

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At the Seeking Safety class at the Native Women's Resource Centre of Toronto, Indigenous women grappling with trauma and substance abuse learn ways to cope, and manage stress.

"The government needs to have more places that are geared towards aboriginal people and their needs, as opposed to putting them in a regular shelter where you can't smudge, talk about elders, or your teachings."

City of Toronto pledges action

The city's board of health approved the Indigenous overdose strategy Monday — what appears to be the first of its kind in Canada, said the board's chair, Councillor Joe Cressy.

"We know far too well, overdose deaths are preventable deaths. In recent years as we've talked again and again about this escalating crisis, we know there's a disproportionate impact on Indigenous Torontonians and Canadians and that is unacceptable," Cressy told the board.

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Councillor Joe Cressy and frontline advocates converge on city hall Jan. 31, 2018, as council was set to vote on improving shelter services.

Throughout the first half of 2018, more than 2,000 Canadians died of opioid-related death, including 638 in Ontario, according to Statistics Canada. While data is limited, research indicates Indigenous people are at higher risk of overdosing.

Alberta health officials found in 2017 that the rate of opioid overdose deaths was three times higher among Indigenous Albertans. A similar trend has been documented in B.C. A 2013 study, led by Indigenous researchers, found that 90 per cent of Toronto's Indigenous population live in poverty and 18 per cent used prescription opioids without a prescription, said the public health report.

"I've lost so many relatives, who have died of overdoses. I've lost people I've worked for. I've lost friends in this time (since public health began writing the report)," said Les Harper, to the public health board. He works at a Toronto supervised consumption site, and is demanding action. "We need people to step aside to allow us to run the programs we need."

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Toronto Public Health will urge the federal and provincial governments to fund Indigenous agencies and provide more culturally-safe outreach and supports, including a Indigenous-led safe consumption site, it said in a report.

"The report really reflects the profound impact this crisis is having on the Indigenous community and certainly we heard a lot about the trauma and grief people are experiencing in their lives and the ongoing impact of colonialism and racism," said Susan Shepherd, public health's drug strategy manager.

"The biggest message was that people want Indigenous services delivered by Indigenous service providers, in particular people with lived experience."

'It brings you forward'

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Caralee (left) listens to the Native Women's Resource Centre of Toronto's trauma coordinator Sharon Reddick at the Seeking Safety class Feb. 21, 2019.

The Native Women's Resource Centre helps Indigenous women and their children access housing, employment and education, and offers family, youth and cultural programs, such as Ojibwe language classes, and the Seeking Safety course.

"It's a very positive space for me to come to, to dump anything I have to dump, and learn how to take it on," Brandi Nashkewa, 61, told the Seeking Safety group there. "I have somebody to talk to. When I'm at home and I'm alone and depressed, that's when I'm calling up a dealer and ordering some bad shit."

Nashkewa's mother was raised in a residential school where she "learned nothing about child rearing and nothing about loving, and she wasn't able to pass on these teachings to me," she said. Looking for support, Nashkewa began attending the centre 20 years ago, gaining knowledge and coping tools.

Knowing who you are and where you come from and why some of the trauma is in you, it brings you forward.Caralee, Seeking Safety participant

Seated next to Nashkewa was Caralee, new to Seeking Safety, in search of ways to reduce her drug use and address childhood trauma rooted in her childhood, she said, preferring not to include her last name for fear of stigma.

Her father was also a residential school survivor. By the time he left school, "he was so damaged he was no good to anybody," Caralee said. He tried to kill her mother a couple of times, before leaving the family.

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For most of her life, Caralee, 50, knew very little about her Indigenous heritage, but is eagerly discovering it now.

"The feeling of it. I can't put it into words. Knowing who you are and where you come from and why some of the trauma is in you, it brings you forward," Caralee said. "My stress has been coming down and I haven't really been smoking what I usually smoke. It's just not on mind. I've been thinking about what I gotta do next."