The Nisga'a Nation says it hopes to create a healing and detox facility with the aim of inviting members living with substance use back to their home territory to recover.
The nation's leaders last week journeyed nearly 800 kilometres from their home in northwestern B.C. to Vancouver's Downtown Eastside to meet and talk to fellow Nisga'a about their experiences with addiction and recovery.
On Aug. 19 the delegation, including the nation's president and chair of its Council of Elders, met Nisga'a on the streets, as well as former drug users and outreach workers the nation hired to find and support them, and invited CBC News to observe.
"We have many people that are homeless. Nisga'a are not immune to it," said Eva Clayton, president of the Nisga'a Lisims Government.
"But we also want to understand the plight of our people — whether it's by circumstance, whether it's by choice."
Indigenous people are far more likely to die of drug toxicity in B.C. than other people, according to the First Nations Health Authority. Indigenous people made up roughly 15 per cent of all provincial drug fatalities in 2020.
Clayton said the idea for a centre in the nation's territory is an important step toward inviting members with addictions back home, onto their land and connected to their culture.
But first, she wanted to listen to the community's needs and experiences. One of the people she met in the Downtown Eastside was Jade Doolan, who left his northern community and moved to the Vancouver neighbourhood, where he struggled with addiction before becoming a youth worker.
"I really believe that culture really does save lives," Doolan said. "When you lose your sense of self, your culture's really what brings you back."
He recalled how encouraging it felt whenever he met a fellow Nisga'a member in the neighbourhood.
I really believe that culture really does save lives. - Jade Doolan
"It just means that you're not alone down here anymore," he explained. "The moment that you find somebody who's from where you're from, you're like, 'You're Nisga'a too?!'
"And then there's that instant connection ... that love and respect is there."
His advice for his nation's leaders is to remember that people connect and trust those who understand or have experienced the issues they face. Outreach workers with lived experience can make significant headway in supporting people they meet, he said.
Doolan acknowledged that in smaller and remote communities, there are disagreements and mistrust toward some recovery-based programs, as well as to the concept of harm reduction — a model in widespread practice in Vancouver.
He believes both recovery and harm-reduction treatment approaches are effective, adding that he used a form of harm reduction himself.
"I actually encourage harm reduction," he said. "If you quit drinking or drugs instantaneously, really fast, you could actually die. ... You can't change your mindset in one day, it takes time."
The Nisga'a Nation has partnered with the Haisla Nation to have two outreach workers in Vancouver through the All Nations Outreach program, which will soon be moving into a new office in the Downtown Eastside to host its programs — and, they hope, eventually invite their citizens home.
Lynne Clayton, a Nisga'a worker on that outreach team, helped lead last week's high-level delegation. She said it was really important for her to host her nation's leadership in person and to show them what her team have achieved.
"Our nation has people that reside not only in the Downtown Eastside, but the general core of Vancouver," she said. "Even though to others it looks very rough and tough down here, these street people take care of each other like you would not believe.
"I am so proud of the hearts that they share with each other. It doesn't matter how down they are or what they don't have."