Consultations take place on youth drug use in Kanesatake

For many experiencing addiction, residential treatment and long-term treatment programs are the most helpful resources in getting better. But these programs are expensive, and often smaller communities like Kanesatake have a harder time accessing this type of care – particularly for youth.

That’s where the Walgwan Center comes in, a national rehabilitation centre for First Nations and Inuit youth that offers a 14-week residential program and other treatment options to help youth who are struggling. This week, staff from Walgwan have been posted at the Kanesatake Health Center (KHC) to conduct community consultations and better understand how Kanesata’kehró:non could benefit from their type of care.

“We noticed that in the past few years that the youth we serve that come to our residential program have needs that changed quickly,” said Walgwan’s Jonathan Merceir, who has been leading consultations at KHC. “We want to visit communities to see the needs hands-on, because each community is different regarding substance use. We want to know, what’s going on? And what are the consequences of all the intergenerational trauma that’s happening?”Mercier explained that intergenerational trauma is a huge factor in cycles of substance abuse that Walgwan has seen across communities. In particular, he highlighted the role of group homes and the foster care system in ongoing trauma, and described how Walgwan has been addressing the issue.

“We have a lot of youth that come to us from foster homes or from the Quebec government homes for youth,” said Mercier. “A lot of our youth went through that situation, and so we have tried to use our outreach engagement sessions to also speak with the people that actually do the referrals, to help and clarify things, ask some questions, and see what’s going on.”

The discussion is especially important right now as Kanesatake mourns the loss of Brayden Jay Shakohawitha Etienne, who died of drug-related causes on February 9. Etienne had himself spent time in a group home, where his mother said he first became addicted to substances.

“In situations like this, we get a referral and then do a pre-admission, so we talk to the youth, talk to the families, we ask what’s going on, and when it’s time, we reach out either by phone or official letter,” explained Mercier. “After that, we ask the referral agents to arrange for transportation. Most of our guests come from that situation, actually.”

In most cases, youth will then travel to Walgwan’s treatment centre, which is situated in Gesgapegiag on the Gaspé Peninsula, giving them space and time to address their substance use with trained professionals. However, in some cases, including potentially in cases involving group homes or multiple living situations, youth will prefer to stay at home. In this case, Walgwan offers alternative treatment options.

“I’m helping out a youth right now that is in a group home, and she couldn’t come to residential treatment, so we’re giving her virtual treatment instead,” said Mercier. “I meet her twice a week through video, and we have psychologists on hand that she’ll see twice a week, and then we’ll see after the virtual program if she still needs a residential program. And if so, we’ll be more than willing to bring her to the treatment centre.”

At Walgwan’s treatment centre, an elder is available to provide guidance to youth, and cultural workshops are regularly scheduled. A designated cultural leader works with youth in talking circles, and weekly, residents attend a sweat lodge. Youth also go through four symbolic phases during treatment: coyote, wolf, beaver, and eagle. Each one is marked with ceremonies to acknowledge progress.

For April Kibbe, manager of child and family services at KHC, having Walgwan on-site has led to some eye-opening conversations, and she noted that consultation sessions have been well attended.

“We talked about intake and how we can access the services,” said Kibbe. “It’s a really good resource for us to have for youth because we don’t have addiction services in a centre for youth in the community, so having Walgwan available would be really, really great,” said Kibbe.

Kibbe explained that Walgwan focuses on accessibility – something she sees as particularly important for making sure all youth can receive care. She noted the usefulness of an online option.

“That’s just really, really great, because there are clients who don’t want to leave the community, and that would be a reason why they don’t seek treatment.”

Sessions were staggered to allow input from different groups, and Kibbe noted that the first session for healthcare workers was particularly well attended, with a room full of people in a discussion lasting nearly two hours.

The Walgwan Center will continue their consultations in other communities, including Akwesasne and Kahnawake, which both met with the treatment centre this week. Anyone is invited to reach out to the centre with questions or to file an application to request treatment.

Eve Cable, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Door