The distance from Mistissini to Eastmain is 670 kilometers; from Chisasibi, 442; from Waskaganish, 319. The distances are long, but those committed to “Walk Your Talk” set out from their home communities on a virtual walk to Eastmain, racking up the mileage as they walked to work, school, or simply around town, to equal the distance of an actual trek to the Cree Grand Council of Chiefs’ August meeting in Eastmain. The walkers were carrying an important message: addictions and dependencies have an impact on all aspects of life in Eeyou Istchee, and the problem requires immediate action.
Josée Quesnel, the Planning, Programming and Research Officer in Addiction, coordinates a multidisciplinary working group on substance addiction and dependencies that has set two goals to help lower addiction rates. One is to address the age when youngsters first experiment with alcohol or drugs. “Studies show the age of first use is getting younger,” says Quesnel. “Five years ago we were seeing Cree youths, those referred to a treatment centre, whose first experimentation was at eleven or twelve. Now, we see some children starting at as young as eight or nine. So it is getting worse.” Because early users often have parents who abuse substances, the second goal is to help people move from a “substance abuse” lifestyle to a healthy lifestyle, and then to keep them living healthily.
The Bimutidah Shdiyimuwn (Walk Your Talk) Declaration, carried by the walkers to the Grand Council of Chiefs, outlines how these goals can be achieved. The declaration asserts that “It is time to work together to stop the substance abuse in the Eeyou Istchee,” and warns that abuse “has now reached levels of epidemic proportions and will continue to worsen if we do not make significant changes.” The Grand Council, whose support is critical for the success of the initiative, agreed to take the Declaration to their home communities to have them ratified by each Band Council – and then by the Grand Council as a whole.
The Declaration lays out four critical points for confronting the problem. “We looked at what has been done before elsewhere, identifying what has and has not worked,” says Quesnel. Based on this analysis, and on an assessment of the needs of Eeyou Istchee, the Declaration proposes the development of programs to help parents increase their knowledge of today’s youth: to help them make choices, deal with peer pressure, and so forth. Then, because sports and recreation programs can have an immense impact on youth and adults, especially those who are recovering from abusing substances, by helping them develop social skills, self esteem, confidence, and assertiveness, these Declaration stresses that these programs must be available and are recognized as a tool for preventing early use as well as an aid for recovery. The Declaration also proposes a collaboration with the Cree School Board to develop a curriculum addressing substance abuse issues. Finally, drawing from recent regional consultations, it proposes reactivating the plan to create a regional treatment facility, or healing lodge, that would offer community recovery programs.
Addiction in Eeyou Istchee has long been characterized as a health care problem, but Quesnel is challenging that perception. “This is not a job for the Cree Health Board alone,” she says, explaining why the declaration was presented to the Grand Council for their support. A number of other official bodies have also been asked to formally endorse the declaration, among them the Cree School Board, the Cree Trappers Association, the Regional Council of Elders, the Youth Council, and the Eeyou/Eenou Police Force. “We want to bring these issues to the foreground. For instance, if we talk about economic development, we have to know that to reach our economic goals, we need healthy people. You don’t have manpower if your people are not healthy,” she says. “And we want our partners to better understand what kind of actions they can take. For instance, how does someone involved in economic development or in human resources development address this issue?” Quesnel is in the process of organizing a summit meeting of partners next spring so that each can identify practical steps to take in order to make a difference, steps which they would then implement over the following year.
“The issue is big, so we must do something urgently,” says Quesnel. “And because addiction can be hard to speak about and often connects to a lot of pain, suffering, and trauma, we have to approach it in a positive way. If we focus on the person, family, and community, by developing programs providing tools people need in order to be healthy, we might be more successful in preventing addictions.”
So far, four band councils - those in Whapmagoostui , Chisasibi, Wemindji and Nemaska – have endorsed the Bimutidah Shdiyimuwn Declaration, and Quesnel is following up with the remainder. “The real test will come after the summit,” she says. “Then we will have a clearer idea if steps we are taking now are significant enough, and where they will bring us a year down the line.“