WIIKWEMKOONG – Tim Ominika of Wiikwemkoong, a long time advocate for people living with mental illness and addictions, is currently implementing a survey in collaboration with Naandwechige–Gamig Health Centre to “better understand the impacts of opioid and methamphetamine use, COVID-19, treatment options and equity challenges with special focus on identifying strengths and resiliency within the community,” according to survey developer Thunderbird Partnership Foundation (TPF), a leading culturally-centric advocate for collaboration, integration and a holistic approach to wellness for First Nations across Canada.
“This is my passion”, said Mr. Ominika. “I’ve always fought to help community members who are having challenges around opioid or substance misuse.” Mr. Ominika has been working in the areas of harm reduction and opiate addiction awareness since 2008. He helped implement an opioid antagonist treatment clinic in the community in 2014 while working for the health centre. “All the work was around issues some community members had with opioid dependencies and from doing that work, we developed a great understanding of opioid dependencies and how western medical treatment was not completely effective in a First Nation community.”
Having an inclusive cultural component to recovery means including more knowledge keepers and adding more land-based programming to assist with individuals who are having challenges with opioid dependency, he said. He began working more with physicians and pharmacists to ensure those individuals accessing this (western) form of treatment were provided with the best quality of care. More recently he has branched out to assist other First Nations communities develop treatment programs which would include that cultural component. This survey can provide the data necessary for improved advocacy and better funding for culturally appropriate and effective treatments.
In August of this year he began working for TPF. The organization uses a holistic approach that values culture, respect, community and compassion. The focus of their work is on national and provincial policy and programming but most importantly, on First Nations communities and service providers, said Mr. Ominika. The organization also provides training to support First Nations communities around substance misuse and mental health and addictions.
Mr. Ominika met Dr. Carol Hopkins, executive director of TPF, during a speaking engagement in 2009. She is from Lenape Nation at Moraviantown, Ontario and was awarded the Order of Canada in 2018 after having spent more than 20 years in the field of First Nations addiction and mental health. Following a conversation this summer, Dr. Hopkins offered Mr. Ominika the opportunity to work on the survey project. This national research project funded through the Public Health Agency of Canada is called ‘A Community Engagement Overview: First Nations Opioid and Methamphetamine Survey.’ The project began about 18 months ago and is scheduled to wrap up in 2022. The information will be compiled into a report that can be used to develop community-based programs or policies or to advocate for additional funding for programs and services.
“We’ve seen the impacts of COVID-19 that are happening not only on First Nations across Canada but also throughout municipalities and urban centres,” Mr. Ominika said. “We noticed there was a high increase in substance misuse. Because of the restrictions across Canada due to COVID, a lot of people with mental health and addictions issues who had no support systems in place then had trouble coping with the additional challenges. Many individuals who were already vulnerable began using substances on a more regular basis than they were before. Not only that, we noticed that some abstinence based treatment centres had to close due to COVID restrictions and lockdowns, so people could no longer go there to get their treatment. Those people had to return home and deal with their substance misuse and challenges on their own which made it very difficult for people across Canada, not just in First Nations.”
One objective of the survey is to determine community members’ understanding of opioid and methamphetamine dependency within their communities. The collected data will be compiled into a report with findings summarized for each community. The findings will allow TPF to advocate on behalf of a community for additional funding for non-existing programs related to mental health and addictions; where there are existing programs TPF will be able to advocate for ongoing, long-term funding. As TPF is nationally recognized and respected, they can advocate at both the federal and provincial levels based upon the findings, said Mr. Ominika.
Mr. Ominika’s focus is on promoting participation by First Nation communities located in Ontario, beginning with his home community of Wiikwemkoong. Since he began working with TPF in August he’s been in communication with the Chiefs of Ontario, Anishnabek Nation and the North Shore Tribal Council. “I’m reaching out to all the leadership of the communities for their support and advocacy,” he said. “We’re trying to get as much First Nation involvement as we can before the project ends in 2022 as it would allow us to support those First Nations by helping to obtain funding for mental health and addictions.”
He fears that many communities, not only First Nations communities, can be resistant to data collecting because they don’t want their communities to be viewed in a negative way. He has been advocating for treatment since 2008 and says this won’t make communities look bad. It will, however, “assist our community to provide programs and services which we are all striving to provide for those individuals who are experiencing challenges with substance misuse.”
The survey is not only for individuals with substance use problems and full community involvement will help to eliminate the stigma that surrounds addiction. He sees the survey as an eye-opener. People who have completed it have commented they now have more understanding of what is happening within the community. “It’s making them more aware of the challenges and issues that people experience,” he said. “These surveys will provide that education awareness for participating First Nations communities and will help reduce that stigma.”
Mr. Ominika will be reaching out to all Island First Nation leadership to explain how the survey would be beneficial to their community. Support of chief and council and collaboration with health services are crucial to successful implementation. The process is completely anonymous. “We respect the privacy of all individuals. We follow OCAP rules (ownership, control, access and possession). Each community owns its own data and is only used in collaboration with TPF with permission for advocating on the community’s behalf.”
“The survey is pretty extensive,” he added. “The health service assists with individuals that may get triggered during the survey. There is a number to call for counselling and other supports. Thunderbird also has their own crisis line if there is not one available within the individual’s own community.”
Persons or communities that would like to participate or want more information can contact Mr. Ominika by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on his cell at 705-282-4592.