“Addictions are crippling our youth and addiction has the potential to cripple our Nation,” warned Bella Petawabano, the newly elected Chair of the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay, in her keynote address to participants of the Addictions Summit held November 19-21. “The damage of broken relationships extends far beyond the individual drinker or user,” Petawabano continued. “When you throw a pebble into a pond, the ripple spreads in every direction. Each tragedy in Eeyou Istchee linked with drugs and alcohol involves a few people directly, but the impacts are felt by many, many more.”
As Petawabano’s keynote address stressed, participants from every community in Eeyou Istchee, in every health survey since the early 1990, have identified alcohol and drug abuse as pressing community problems. “We are all living with the chaos of ekaa chihkaawaateyimuu, the chaos which can happen when some are not acting with respect towards others,” she said. “Its effects are greatest on our future generations: the children growing up without that unconscious security and the unborn being exposed to drugs and alcohol.”
Addictions affect everyone – their impact reverberates across families and communities. As the Cree Health Board’s Josée Quesnel pointed out, “Addictions are not just a health and social services issue. It’s an issue for everyone: entities, community members, everyone interested in the well-being of people in Eeyou Istchee.” For the three days of the Addictions Summit, representatives of major Cree entities met to discuss the problem of addictions and to develop ways of dealing with this challenge. Among the summit participants were representatives of the Cree Health Board, Regional and community governments, the Cree School Board, the Elders Council, the Regional EI Police Force, the Cree Youth Council, Sports and Recreation (from the Cree Regional Authority), the Community Wellness/Public Health units from the individual communities, and Challenge Family Services. “We invited key people from each entity to ensure strong post-summit follow-up of the points we discussed,” said Quesnel, who coordinated the event. “Our aim was to bring these people together to make a strong stand, because we cannot wait any longer. And these people are also parents and community members, so they know how important it is to make a forceful statement.”
By the end of the summit, the representatives of each entity had committed to a series of local and regional action points to pursue over the next 12 to 18 months – everything from building partnerships to launch multimedia campaigns advocating healthy Cree lifestyles to initiatives to increase the number of youth-and-elders seasonal gatherings. “We are looking for feasible, concrete, meaningful things we can do right away,” says Quesnel. The next step is for each entity to develop a detailed action plan by mid-February. Meanwhile, an addictions working group, chaired by the Cree Health Board’s Sol Awashish and with representatives from the other entities, will ensure that momentum is maintained and that lines of communication stay open.
“We are now positioned to achieve a degree of indigenous self-government and self-reliance which the world has not yet seen before,” said Dr. Matthew Coon-Come, Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Cree, in his closing speech at the summit. “But to achieve the potential and the promise which lies before us we need the heads, the hands and the hearts of every citizen of the Cree Nation… There is no room in a Cree Nation that has an important destiny to fulfill for the kinds of abuses and addictions which distract our people from focusing on the challenges we face. We are at a point in our history when we need the best from each and every citizen. We need everyone to know that we need them to be the best they can be. And we need people to know that they are not alone and that we will be there to support their healing journeys.”
The addictions summit marks the beginning of that healing journey. “And now the real work begins,” says Quesnel. “We’ve taken the first step toward creating change.”