Community support for a drug and alcohol-free environment within the 10 area First Nations got a healthy endorsement here Friday morning when almost 300 people showed up to participate in a “Rally and Walk.”
The event—the first of its kind—included a banner-waving march from the Senic River Mall on Second Street East to the Nanicost grounds, where guest speakers and presentations for individual achievement in the promotion of healthy living were featured.
“The walk was an idea first given by the 10 area chiefs,” said Shannon Blight, addictions counsellor for On-Shki-Be-Ma-Te-Ze-Win Inc., the agency which organized the event.
“Various [aboriginal] communities have had their own rallies but this is the first walk to take place on a tribal level,” she noted.
The event, aligned with the chemical-free strategy adopted by the First Nations communities last year, saw seven human service professionals talk about the healing journey necessary to recover from a dependent lifestyle.
One of the ways to help that process, especially with young adults, is to have teen centres set up in each of the 10 First Nations communities, said Rick Comeau, manager of Weechi-it-te-win’s Independent Living Centre.
“My focus was on the kids in the communities, adolescents especially,” he stressed, noting that he was most concerned for native youth who, after receiving treatment for their addictions, return home to face the same struggles—including the peer pressure of other teens using drugs and alcohol.
“[My focus] was about having a centre to go to where no alcohol and no drugs were allowed," Comeau said. ”Every community should have such a place—a place that is supervised but where the kids helped make up the rules.
“And they protect [the] place to keep other intoxicated kids from coming in," he noted. "They could call this place their own.”
Comeau supervised a youth centre in Elliot Lake for six years and said it played an important part in helping kids gain a proactive attitude towards healthy living.
“It was a major success. A lot of kids sobered up through that facility as a matter of fact,” he added.
Meanwhile, drug and alcohol dependency among native youth is a problem 16-year-old Naomi Mamakwa knows all too well. A member of a northern reserve, she is living at Weechi-it-te-win’s Teaching and Learning Centre (TLC) on Couchiching for the next 90 days to learn how to deal with her own dependency problems.
She attended Friday’s rally along with 11 other teens from TLC, and said the whole event gave her more incentive to lead a better life.
“A lot of my relatives have died from using alcohol. Last summer my aunt died because she drank herself to death,” she said.
“Yes [the rally] was important to me. I wanted to run for those people who died," she continued. "I want to help myself and help others gain respect.”
“We wanted to join the rally to give the message to our kids that doing drugs and alcohol can take their lives away,” echoed TLC facilitator Wanda Morrisseau.
She said it is often very difficult to motivate teens who are recovering from dependency problems and/or dysfunctional family situations, and felt the rally was beneficial in helping them understand the importance of community support in getting better.
TLC manager Peter Ferris echoed Morrisseau’s comments on the rally’s benefit to youth, and stressed any and all proactive events which exemplify self-respect and responsibility play a part in the healing process.
“The kind of issues that were addressed at the rally are the same ones we attempt to address day after day in the [TLC] program,” he noted.
“Being a part of something that is bigger than you . . . is a very important part of children’s healing to try to take advantage of all events like that; to give them a greater sense of who they are and to strengthen their commitment,” he said.
Representatives from the local chapter of Ontario Students Against Drunk Driving (OSAID) also were invited to attend the rally. David Florek, attending OAC at Fort High, said the whole experience was a reaffirmation for him.
“It was different for me because I had never attended something like this before," he said. ”All the speeches they had were very closely related to what OSAID is about. People got up there and told of how they got off alcohol.
“It was a good experience for me [because] I don’t believe in drinking and driving,” he stressed.
Other guest speakers at the rally included Calvin Morrisseau, Donna Perrault, Diane Morrison, George Simard, Kari Langtry, Wayne Smith, and Vernon Mainville, who was recognized for his contributions as a drug and alcohol prevention worker.