'Here to model the way': Little Salmon Carmacks FN seeks Indigenous-led solutions to substance use

·3 min read
Nicole Tom, chief of the Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation, said it was her duty to organize a health and wellness for her nation after it lost nine members to the substance use crisis this year. 'It’s an opportunity for everybody to let it go — or try to, at least,' she said.   (Anna Desmarais/CBC - image credit)
Nicole Tom, chief of the Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation, said it was her duty to organize a health and wellness for her nation after it lost nine members to the substance use crisis this year. 'It’s an opportunity for everybody to let it go — or try to, at least,' she said. (Anna Desmarais/CBC - image credit)

Nicole Tom believes it's a good sign that the river breakup in Carmacks, Yukon, coincides with their health and wellness week.

"This is my New Year's," she stand, standing along the banks of the Yukon River.

"Everything that happened in the last year.… It's an opportunity for everybody to let it go, or try to, at least."

It's been a tough year for the Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation. Tom led the community as chief through part of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Yukon's ongoing substance use crisis.

Substance use has claimed the lives of at least nine people since the beginning of the year.

That's why Tom says it's her duty to organize a health and wellness week for her nation, so it can come together to find the best way to heal.

"When these things happen to us, the hurt and the grief is heavy," she said. "The response has been that this is necessary, and they've been waiting for this for a long time."

Local solutions

The First Nation asked Martin Morberg, a Northern Tutchone and Tlingit member of the Na-Cho Nyak Dun First Nation, to coordinate the week because he's led similar events elsewhere in Canada.

Morberg said it's important for First Nations to lead the way in finding local solutions to the substance use crisis that work for them.

Anna Desmarais/CBC
Anna Desmarais/CBC

"It's very common of non-Indigenous people, Western settlers, to come into Indigenous communities … and say 'Oh your problems are A, B and C, and now we have your solution,'" he said.

"Part of the conversation we're having is … identifying the power that is within our communities and within our young leaders."

Throughout the week, organizers mixed workshops on topics like safer partying and harm reduction with time for traditional activities, like drum making and beadwork.

Sharing path to recovery

The health and wellness week gave a forum for young leaders to share their path to recovery with the community.

Lyndsay Amato, a member of the Carcross First Nation, co-led the territory-wide vigils for victims of the opioid crisis in January.

Amato, speaking about several opioid-related deaths earlier this year, said there is not enough conversation about how to support people grappling with substance use.

"What do we need to have happen? A whole new slew of deaths … before those conversations reignite again?" she said.

Anna Desmarais/CBC
Anna Desmarais/CBC

In February, the Yukon government held a virtual mental health summit of their own, but Amato said communities need more.

She said one way to address the crisis is for those in recovery, like her, to share their stories with others so that people know a better future is possible.

"I hope that people just hear a story of hope," Amato said.

"I've been to some really dark, low places in my life, and there's a lot of hope in my story."

'Model the way'

Morberg, Amato and Tom said more events like this which are Indigenous-lead and keep Indigenous storytelling practices at the centre, would be a great way to break down barriers around substance use.

Morberg said he's already gotten requests from other communities like Mayo and Pelly Crossing.

"The trust is there because we're Indigenous people doing this Indigenous work in Indigenous communities," Morberg said.

"We're really here to model the way and show that … we can break through, we can get strong, and then we can come back and serve our communities."

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