Saugeen First Nation elder Ningwakwe George has seen the flag at the James Mason Memorial and Cultural Centre flying at half-mast far too often of late.
On Tuesday, George — whose first name means Rainbow Woman – commented about how relieved she was to see the First Nation’s flag flying at the top of the pole.
“In the last little while we have buried 13 people, and approximately three of those could be deemed to be natural causes and then the other 10 were traumatic and left us earlier than they should have left,” George said. “And of course there are those ripple effects when someone passes on. It affects the family and it affects the community.”
But George and others in the community have been given some hope. She is currently coordinating a project, with the help of others in the First Nation, that will eventually provide help with the drug crisis they are facing.
In recent months, George and her team have been conducting interviews and completing surveys with people in the community, many of whom have been directly impacted by drug abuse.
The initiative spearheaded by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health will see its research findings shared with the community later this spring, that is to be followed by a community wellness strategy to identify the areas of concern and what measures can be taken to help combat them.
Saugeen Coun. Sonya Roote, who is the council representative for the project, said something has to be done because too many people are dying. She said the influx of opioids is the main culprit behind the deaths. Opioids, particularly fentanyl, have been a growing concern in communities across Grey-Bruce in recent years. In just the last four months, the Grey Bruce Health Unit has twice put out warnings because of an increase in overdoses. The latest warning was issued just a couple of weeks ago after there were five overdoses in a 48-hour period, with an additional three in the three weeks prior. Hanover police reported that there were two overdose deaths in their community in mid-March.
“It has gotten to an epidemic proportion in my mind,” Roote said of what Saugeen First Nation has been experiencing. “Of course we had problems before, but within the last year to a year-and-a-half I feel this place has just blown up with addiction problems.”
Roote said almost everyone in the community has been affected. If you aren’t related to someone yourself, you know someone who is, she explained.
“And those are the ones who pass on. There are those we don’t hear about. There are those we hear about,” added George. “There was a suicide attempt we heard about and other drug overdoses.”
Roote says it can be seen on any given day by driving around the community.
“We have what almost seem like zombies,” said Roote. “You pick them up, and you talk to them and take them to where they are going. A lot of them have lost their home and a lot of them have given up.”
There has been a ripple effect on others, including children and elders.
“We have a lot of young kids who don’t have their parents in their lives. Grandparents or family members are looking after them,” said Roote. “To me it is like you are taking the parents away from the kids, but you are also taking the grandparents away because now they are in charge of the discipline and the daily responsibility. You aren’t allowed to be the grandparent anymore.”
It wears on her daily, she said.
“It is just one of those things that seem so senseless, and you can’t make sense of it,” she said, her eyes welling with tears as she talked about the experiences, some of which have affected her personally. “It just seems to be getting worse.”
So the band became part of the CAMH project, which is being led on the ground by Saugeen members.
“In my view it is a true collaboration,” said George, who once worked in the Ontario government and found that programs didn’t always roll out the way they wanted them to. “With CAMH we have had a lot of input and a lot of respect for the way we wanted to do this. They made sure we hired someone from the community and then they gave me free rein to recruit the people I felt would be a good fit for this project.”
It started early last year when the band council was approached by CAMH, and council agreed to move ahead with the project.
“I thought it was a really good idea because it was reaching out to our members to get their experiences and what they have been through,” said Roote. “The ultimate goal is to figure out what we need to focus on, what is a priority, so I think this will go a long way to figuring it out what it is we need to work on right now.”
After the Community Advisory Circle was established, George was named field co-ordinator and the research assistants were hired, and a CAMH mobile lab arrived late last year. It was set up in the parking lot of the James Mason Centre, the place where the funerals and memorials were held for many of those who they have lost.
The response from the community has been strong. On Tuesday, they were just four surveys away from their goal of 200 completed.
George said the project hasn’t been without its own hurdles. There were those wintry days in January and February that closed area roads, businesses and organizations. And the work has taken a toll on some of the research assistants, who have had to hear very difficult stories about how people they know have been affected.
George said they thought community members would come in, fill out the surveys and leave. But in many cases, researchers sit down with the person, asks questions, and then input them into the computers.
“Even people we knew that were comfortable with computers and had a good literacy level wanted someone to sit with and listen to them,” said George. “A survey that would have taken them 45 minutes to do at a computer would take up to two hours because they wanted to talk about what was going on.
“Naturally some of the questions would lead to some of the stressors in their lives.”
George said that sitting down and talking to the people enacted one of the values the program is based on, which is respect.
“We were respecting where the people were coming from, what they were dealing with and we gave them that listening ear and that kind heart so that they could share their stories with us, share their pain and share their grief,” she said.
But she saw how much it was affecting the research assistants, who have had to deal with issues in their own lives.
George brought in a friend who runs a healing facility to do a healing circle with the assistants, something CAMH backed fully.
“All of the assistants said it was a very good circle and that the timeliness of it all was exactly what they needed to rebalance themselves and get recommitted again to the project,” George said. “We never lost our commitment, we were just starting to feel a little bit weary.”
That break earlier this year allowed them to continue to push forward with their work. Roote said she is proud of what the team has accomplished.
“The perfect team is working on this project right now,” she said. “They are trustworthy, they are caring, they are respectful.”
Roote praised CAMH and project scientist Melody Morton Ninomiya for being accommodating and respectful during the process.
“It has been a real pleasure to work with them, no doubt about it,” said Roote. “Melody has been just awesome. Very easy to work with.”
Both George and Roote have hope that the initiative will provide some help to the community.
“Seeing as how the priorities and the results are coming out of our membership, it is a very inclusive thing,” Roote said. “I just keep looking at this project as our direction and our stepping stone to do whatever it is we need to do right now.”
In May the findings are to be presented to the community by CAMH staff, including George. The community will be asked for further input to determine if anything was missed.
The data belongs to Saugeen First Nation and it will be up to community members to decide the priorities, what the focus of the mental wellness strategy should be and how to address the issues identified.
Roote hopes they will be able to determine what is needed most and direct resources at some solutions.
“I know other communities that have gone through the process have figured out that their focus right now needs to be on boys and men, so they have incorporated a lot of workshops and teachings for men and young boys,” said Roote. “The way I am looking at it is that it is going to put that priority right there. What is the first thing we need to tackle here the hardest?
“It will also help with a bit of a map of what we need to do because we really are struggling.”
George said they have front-line staff with drug addiction and mental health expertise who are good at what they do and are doing their absolute best, but there simply are not enough of them to handle the depth of the problems they are facing.
“We are hoping this project will help to identify how to get funding, how to get the staff and how to get the supports that we need,” said George, adding they hope some strategies can be enacted soon.
“CAMH is going to help us come up with the funding to do this project and hopefully to keep it going.”
Samantha Wells, senior director of the Institute for Mental Health Policy Research with CAMH, is also hopeful that projects like the one at Saugeen First Nation can continue, though much of that will depend on securing additional funding.
The roots of the project go back several years, she said. CAMH ran another project in eight communities across the province, including two First Nations.
In a study at the Kettle and Stony Point First Nation, men’s mental health was identified as a key priority.
“We were seeing that men in the community were experiencing mental health challenges, but were not able to access the supports they needed, especially culturally relevant services,” said Wells.
They received a grant from the Movember Foundation, which focuses on men’s health, to develop a strategy for boys’ and men’s mental health in that community through the direct involvement of community members.
“This was kind of a model that we realized, ‘Wow, let’s try this out in other communities,’” said Wells. “We received funds from the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care to use this model for additional First Nations communities.”
Saugeen First Nation is one of five participating in community mental wellness strategies.
“There has been a history of research conducted in First Nations communities where the findings do not help the communities,” said Wells. “In fact the findings, sometimes, whether it is intended or not by the research team, can be used to stigmatize the communities, pathologize the communities by focusing on the negative rather than the positive.”
But this process is meant to build on community strengths, Wells said. The surveys and interviews include questions focusing on those strengths, including asking how to build on and draw from those strengths to improve wellness.
“I think there has been almost a paradigm shift of how research is done in First Nations communities, and I think it is because we are listening now to members of the communities and they are telling us how it has to be done,” said Wells. “It is about time we listened.”
This article was originally published on April 4, 2019 by Rob Gowan, Owen Sound Sun Times.