BIRCH ISLAND—As part of National Addictions Awareness Week last month, Whitefish River First Nation hosted a number of events, including one geared to the youth of the community at the Three Fires Youth and Elders’ Centre.
Gathered around a cozy fire on a blustery evening, the youth smudged and took part in a pipe ceremony led by elder Gloria Oshkabewisens-McGregor before listening to their elder as part of their monthly youth circle.
“It’s important to take care of yourself: mentally, physically and spiritually,” she said. “These ceremonies, like smudging, help to lighten the load. Sometimes we do pick up a lot, from home, community and our peers—I do a pipe ceremony for all of the youth of Birch Island, for all the youth that are struggling in the community.”
She spoke of alcohol and drug abuse as two spirits—very strong spirits—that can consume a person, a family and a community.
Ms. Oshkabewisens-McGregor said that while planning her talk, one for the adults and one for the youth of the community, she realized she couldn’t separate the talks, that each member of the community needed to hear the same thing.
While school is important for learning, Ms. Oshkabewisens-McGregor said the teachings she learned also came from family, community, the way she was raised and her friends.
“When I sit in front of you, I’m not perfect and I don’t claim to be,” she told the group. “That’s why teachings, as they get passed on, get better and better.”
She explained her first encounter with alcohol came at a young age when she encountered a relative using the spirit, which had a negative effect on the family, but from which they were able to recover.
The next encounters came as a teenager and again in early adulthood.
“Alcohol, once again, started circling, affecting my family,” she said. “It came right into our house eventually. The next thing you know it was affecting me, but I didn’t realize it.”
Ms. Oshkabewisens-McGregor told the story of going to a bar to drink with her partner. It was here that she had a strange experience, which she tried to relay to the youths. While drinking at an establishment, she began to have a strange sensation, of something entering her feet and slowly rising within her. Excusing herself to go to the washroom, the feeling got worse—it was cold and frightening—and eventually it reached her mind. Suddenly, the cubicle door swung open, and she was thrown across the washroom—it was the spirit taking complete control.
“I never told anyone what happened,” she said.
After that experience, she tried to stay away from booze, “but the influence of friends was hard.” A year or so later, the same experience happened again.
“After a while it started affecting my life real bad,” she shared.
An elder tried to seek her out on more than one occasion, to offer her help, but each time Ms. Oshkabewisens-McGregor refused, eventually going out of her way to avoid the woman. Finally, one day, she was ready and called her for help.
“I went away to a treatment centre to help me with my sickness, and it is a sickness, like any other sickness,” Ms. Oshkabewisens-McGregor said.
While in treatment, she had the sensation again, but this time it left her and she slept for four days and four nights. She said she realized that the feelings she was having was her spirit battling with the spirit of alcohol for control.
“What the Creator gave me, my spirit, is what keeps me going and healthy,” she told the youth. “Creator said, ‘there’s no way you’re going down that path—I have a plan for you.’ I realized that I had to teach youth, raise my children and teach and help the community.”
“When we left Creator, Creator gave us a plan for our lives,” Ms. Oshkabewisens-McGregor continued. “Deep down inside, that feeling that tells you to change course, that’s your spirit.”
The elder spoke of the young people she sits with, overcome with addiction and needing help. She told the story of a young man who sought her out. He was on the methadone treatment program, trying to battle his addiction to opiates, but the methadone left him feeling sick and the help he was promised never came.
“So he sought out his elders who brought him to the bush,” she explained. “He was so sick, his body ridding itself of the chemicals, but he wanted his life back, and he got it back.”
“The Creator didn’t make bad people, it’s the choices and decisions we make,” Ms. Oshkabewisens-McGregor concluded.