Black and white photo of teens holding up signs

Photography courtesy of Barrie Area Native Advisory Circle

Indigenous teens are fighting back against the opioid crisis

How the #NotOurMedicine project is helping Indigenous communities heal—from within

When AJ Ellens was just 15, her boyfriend began ordering pills online.

“I knew he was getting [benzodiazepines] shipped to his house and he was distributing them,” says the now 20-year-old, who is Mohawk from Six Nations. “And I was aware that he was taking opioids, too.”

What Ellens didn’t know was how bad it would get. He would show up at school high, with his friends, until they ended up being expelled. Eventually, the couple broke up. Not long after, he overdosed and had to go to rehab. They got back together when he got clean, only to break up again, for good, when he relapsed. “He’s probably still struggling today,” Ellens says.

She also became close with a girl who had been using fentanyl patches with her boyfriend. Her friend’s boyfriend eventually overdosed too—in his case, fatally. A short time later, a relative told Ellens about a friend whose sister had just died of a fentanyl overdose, her death captured by security cameras. It started to feel overwhelming—like these drugs were wrecking lives all around her. But at the same time, she could understand why opioids were compelling to some of her peers.

While she says she isn’t completely sure, Ellens suspects that intergenerational trauma is a contributing factor—as is the current disconnect between humans and nature. “If I’m being completely honest, I believe that, as human beings, we have responsibilities to tend to what takes care of us, and we don’t do that,” she says. “I think a lot of it has to do with the state of our environment—both socially and our actual environment, what’s happening to nature. Our food supply is probably not going to be that good in a few years; our water’s getting worse. I think all of it factors into it, even if people [aren’t] fully aware of what they’re lacking. I don’t even think they know why they’re doing what they’re doing. It’s scary.”

There have been more than 9,000 apparent opioid-related deaths in Canada since 2016—and the problem is growing. According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI), nearly 4,000 Canadians died of an opioid overdose in 2017 alone.

Black and white photo of a person holding a not our medicine sign

Smaller towns, like Renfrew County, Ont., where Ellens grew up, are being hit harder: CIHI reports that hospitalization rates in communities with between 50,000 and 99,999 people are more than double those in bigger cities. And Indigenous communities are especially vulnerable. A 2018 report to the Barrie Area Native Advisory Circle’s Aboriginal Health Circle says there’s little hard data on the opioid crisis in that specific region, but “we can infer that the prevalence rate for misuse is higher among the Indigenous populations—both urban and on-reserve.” There is data from other parts of Canada: according to a report by KPMG, Indigenous people in Alberta are three times more likely to die of opioid overdoses than non-Indigenous Albertans. In B.C., Indigenous people are four times more likely to die of an opioid overdose than non-Indigenous people.

The roots of pain
The reasons for opioid misuse in Indigenous communities are complex—and Ellens’s suspicion that multi-generational factors are at play is accurate. According to the Aboriginal Health Circle report, “a history of unresolved trauma, including historical intergenerational trauma, is almost always a contributing factor, and that trauma results in a strong drive to use drugs as a way of relieving the pain.”

Poverty and homelessness are also contributors: it’s difficult to address addiction when people lack safe and affordable housing, and in North Simcoe Muskoka, housing issues disproportionally impact Indigenous people.

On top of that, opioids are prescription drugs and therefore relatively easy to access, and the health-care system is desperately lacking in monitoring or oversight. And once a person realizes they’re addicted, there’s also stigma to contend with, both within the community and from mainstream health-care providers. That makes many hesitate to ask for help.

To date, public health efforts to tackle what has been declared “a state of emergency” have not been culturally specific, and the rates of opioid misuse have continued to rise. But a group of Indigenous teens, Ellens among them, is hoping to turn the tide, through a social media campaign called #NotOurMedicine.

Made by and for Indigenous youth
The #NotOurMedicine campaign came out of a one-day event for 25 youth from the North Simcoe Muskoka region that was co-hosted by several Indigenous community organizations. On March 27, 2019, the teens came together from several communities to create an awareness campaign around opioids—one that would actually resonate for them.

The youth spent the morning listening to guest speakers who taught them more about the opioid crisis, in some cases from firsthand experience. In the afternoon, the teens came up with their campaign name themselves and went on to make videos and assets to share on social media, with the help of the guest speakers and Indigenous leaders of the region as well as guidance from actor and director Jennifer Podemski.

The shareable assets get their message across in captivating ways and can be viewed on Facebook, Instagram and Youtube. One video, for instance, draws on performance poetry to tell a young man’s story of opioid misuse. Another is shot in jarring fragments, as a young woman speaks of her disconnection from traditional ways. And another portrays three generations of a tight-knit family, with the young filmmaker’s grandmother addressing the camera, her voice cracking with emotion at the end: “This is our family. We hear you. Talk to us. We are family. We love you. You are not alone.”

Black and white photo of a teen holding a not our medicine sign

Social media captions share Indigenous- and youth-specific crisis lines to call for help. They also invite the public to post their own selfies and stories with the #NotOurMedicine hashtag to help bring awareness to this very important campaign.

“We could not see ourselves in the [mainstream health providers’] strategy,” says Germaine Elliott, chair of the Aboriginal Health Circle and executive director of Mamaway Wiidokdaadwin, an interdisciplinary primary care team in North Simcoe Muskoka. “It was not recognizing the value of cultural approaches to any of this health work.” These approaches include prevention strategies that incorporate the wheel of life concept, crisis support and safe houses (or even just beds) that are specifically intended for Indigenous people, and trauma-informed counselling and support.

The power of connection
But cultural approaches are necessary, Elliott says, especially for younger Indigenous people. For Ellens, the workshop was not just about creation, but above all about connection—both with the knowledge keepers who shared their stories and with peers from different communities. “It was really healing in a lot of different ways,” she says. And the program didn’t impact only the youth who participated—response from parents and other members of the community has been positive as well.

That, according to Elliott, is exactly what the workshop and campaign intended to achieve. “It’s about recognizing that these are our next generation, so we have to support them in learning, support them in doing, but even more importantly, help them understand how valuable they are,” she says.

“I’m not sure that they get that—most often the messaging that’s coming from news outlets or from mainstream organizations about Indigenous people is that we’re a problem, right? But in fact, the reality is that we are a powerful nation. We have powerful spirits. We have been able to sustain ourselves through generations of deliberate attacks to destroy our culture.”

Ellens agrees—and she’s taking that lesson with her into the future. “I think the youth are the only ones who can really, really change things,” she says.

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