Each of us has our own relationship with alcohol. This relationship is influenced by our life experiences, including the experiences and perspectives of our families and communities. Everyone – no matter what kind of relationship you have with alcohol – is included in the circle and deserves safety and support.
As First Nations and Indigenous people, our relationship with alcohol is historical, and largely negative: impacted by prohibition of alcohol under the Indian Act, the trauma and disempowerment of Indian Residential Schools and The Sixties Scoop, and the racist labeling of Indigenous peoples as helpless abusers of alcohol.
Our relationship with alcohol isn't fixed and can change over our lives. Alcohol use may be a response to experiencing trauma and also recreate traumas the user has already experienced.
For some, this has meant deciding not to drink or choosing recreational use in moderation. For others, alcohol use can become a problem if it begins to impact social, emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical health and wellness – even if this does not lead to addiction. Still others may experience alcohol addiction and severe alcohol dependence, thus keeping the cycle moving.
“Where there's a lack of identity – who they are, where they come from – that's one of the biggest concerns. Feeling like they don't belong, or a disconnection," says Kemaxa'las Milly Price who comes from Da'naxda'xw/We Wai Kai/Wei Wai Kum First Nations and works as Program Project Support Coordinator at Kwakiutl District Council (KDC) Health.
“Rebuilding those connections, bringing back culture and traditions, helps guide people back and builds self-esteem. Culture is the biggest component of health and wellness. We need to empower our people and not break them down. They are someone's child, sister, brother, aunt, uncle niece or nephew. Connection is the correction for our people," Kemaxa'las adds.
No matter what our relationship is with alcohol, harm reduction can be part of our health and wellness journey. Harm reduction recognizes that people who use alcohol deserve to be safe and receive support. Indigenous harm reduction integrates cultural strengths, knowledge, traditional values, and appropriate cultural supports.
Kemaxa'las shares how KDC Health is rebuilding cultural connections as part of their harm reduction initiatives. One program for girls, involving Elders and Knowledge Keepers, connects the girls to their culture and traditions through coming together in a circle format, regalia making, and spirit bathing.
KDC Health is also developing a cultural mapping program to provide connection for homeless community members living in Campbell River. KDC Health will provide the community members with their own cameras. The goal is to bring homeless people into circle to discuss the photos they've taken as a way to share their experiences, talk openly about the barriers they face in accessing health services, and what will help them get to where they want to be.
“Both programs focus on connection and culture as the foundation for health and wellness. Kindness, caring, sharing, and listening are key to assisting our people," explains Kemaxa'las.
Another harm reduction approach is take steps to reduce or moderate alcohol consumption. Earlier this month, FNHA physicians shared some ways to moderate alcohol consumption and supports that can help when we're trying to be sober(er).
People who are severely dependent on alcohol also deserve to be safe and cared for, even if reducing or moderating alcohol use is not possible for them. This includes people who face additional health risks from drinking non-beverage alcohols such as mouthwash, hand sanitizer, and rubbing alcohol. Managed alcohol programs have been developed to reduce harm for people who are severely dependent on alcohol. These programs create a safe space to consume a prescribed dose of safer alcohol at regular intervals.
There are a growing number of managed alcohol programs across the province. One example is the Drinker's Lounge in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside neighborhood. The service is available to about 100 clients and includes additional health and wellness supports. On Tuesdays, First Nations and Indigenous clients can participate in cultural activities (drumming, singing and dancing) led by the Culture Saves Lives program.
We know that culture is medicine. The values of care, compassion and self-determination embedded in harm reduction are part of First Nations and Indigenous cultures across BC and Canada. Connecting with culture offers healing and harm reduction that can help us navigate a healthy relationship with alcohol, wherever we are on our healing journey.
We invite all Indigenous peoples across BC to join FNHA's Sober(er) for October Challenge.
Find us on social media to ask us questions, tell your stories and share your experiences Remember to use the hashtags #SobererforOctober and #FNHAwellness.
In case you missed it: Earlier this month FNHA Wellness Educator Andrea Medley (Haida Nation) shared some tips on how to talk to a loved one who is struggling with alcohol use.