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Fight against addiction underway, but PDA remains

Thursday January 10, 2013
Cat Lake Chief Matthew Keewaykapow declared a state of emergency in January 2012 due to PDA.

The epidemic of prescription drug abuse in First Nation communities was not a new news story in 2012. But it remained a devastating story, one where solutions remain elusive, and as such it was an obvious choice for Wawatay’s health story of the year.

When it came to prescription drug abuse, 2012 started off on a difficult note. Right away in January Cat Lake First Nation declared a state of emergency due to the high rates of addiction in the community. Chief and council said it could not provide essential services to members as an estimated 70 percent of people in Cat Lake were addicted to prescription drugs, including children as young as 11.

Cat Lake’s call for help brought the prescription drug story back to the attention of people around the country. It also emphasized how little had changed since Nishnawbe Aski Nation declared a state of emergency across all of the communities due to prescription drugs in 2009.
Yet even though 2012 started off with such a tragedy, the issue of prescription drug abuse started to see some positive developments as the year wore on.

Community-based solutions started to take root across the north. Eabametoong’s land-based programming earned accolades, although funding was limited. Kasabonika Lake continued to set the bar for community-based treatment programs. And in November, a gathering in Neskantaga allowed communities to discuss and share their own approaches to community-based healing programming.

Meanwhile suboxone programs were finding measured success in a number of communities. A Wawatay profile on the healing paths of four people in North Caribou Lake on Oct. 25 put a human face to the struggle with addictions.

As one of the participants in the North Caribou Lake suboxone program put it, having treatment in her community was key to quitting drugs.

“I tried quitting before,” Valerie Keeash said about her time at the Sioux Lookout withdraw unit in 2011. “I finished that program but relapsed once I came out. I had told the workers that I was going to stop and help people who are addicted too but that didn’t happen.”

Keeash went on to describe her battle with addictions and the hope for recovery she embraced once entering the treatment program in her own community. Now she oversees the program along with her sister-in-law Crystal Keeash.

While some communities are having success with suboxone programs, other people are looking to traditional methods of getting away from addiction.

Respected traditional teacher Ralph Johnson of Sioux Lookout told Wawatay in May 2012 that many of his clients are dealing with their prescription drug addiction through traditional healing methods at the Natural Healing program he operates in Rainy Lake.

Johnson used sweat lodge ceremonies, a teaching lodge and other healing avenues such as one on one work.

“They learn a different way of looking at life,” Johnson said. “We’ve had a lot of positive feedback from the people who came.”

But the issue of prescription drug abuse was not all positive in 2012. It flared up again near the end of the year when Health Canada announced it would allow generic OxyContin to be produced and sold in Canada, and then promptly approved six companies to produce the generic drug.

Health Canada’s move caused an outcry from First Nations leaders across the country who fear that allowing cheaper versions of the drug will result in an increase in the amount of prescription drugs flowing north into First Nations communities.

“NAN First Nations are experiencing extreme levels of addiction and require extreme solutions,” said NAN Deputy Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler. “With OxyContin clones on the market, it just means more drugs flow to the north.”

Meanwhile other communities are struggling to get funding to run community-based programming and even suboxone programs.

All of which makes one thing very clear. The health story of the year is not going away in 2013.

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