Cherisse was 17 years old in 2009, and had recently given birth to a baby boy. A member of the Ebb and Flow First Nation, she was struggling with drug addiction and living on the streets in Manitoba, Canada, like so many other Indigenous girls. Cherisse reached out to her mother, Barbara, pleading, “Mommy, I need help.” She wanted to get her use under control “so she could be a good mom,” according to Barbara.
Barbara contacted Cherisse’s social worker from Child and Family Services, the government agency that had taken the son away at birth. Inquiring about placement in a treatment facility, Barbara was told that there were no openings. Upon learning the bad news, Cherisse “felt down,” observed her mother.
“She went back to the street,” Barbara said in an interview included in the recently-released final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. A “couple weeks after that, that’s when they found her body.”
The contents of the report don’t make clear exactly how Cherisse died. But the commissioners analyzing her story make clear that the interpersonal violence she experienced is part and parcel of a broader web of missing or murdered women—which they have concluded amounts to a “deliberate race, identity and gender-based genocide.”
The government agency supposedly dedicated to protecting women and children failed to keep Cherisse safe. Unfortunately, she’s far from the only Indigenous woman who uses drugs to be harmed by such institutional inadequacies.
Indigenous opioid-involved overdoses continue to rise—by more than 20 percent for First Nations people throughout 2018. Indigenous women were eight times more likely to experience a non-fatal overdose and five times more likely to have a fatal overdose than non-Indigenous women, according to the preliminary findings for 2018 overdose data in British Columbia First Nations communities. The National Inquiry notes that the data needed to demonstrate the extent to which Indigenous two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual (2SLGBTQQIA) peoples have been affected by the opioid crisis does not currently exist.
Disproportionately high rates of drug use by Indigenous peoples in Canada have been explained by Lakota social worker Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart as a “historical trauma response,” reframing Indigenous people’s substance use as “understandable responses to the trauma of colonial violence.”
But Leslie Spillett, the executive director of Ka Ni Kanichihk, an Indigenous-led community services nonprofit, has seen how Indigenous women’s drug use or involvement in sex work is used by the public-health establishment to blame them for the very violence to which they’ve been subjected.
“We know that they’ve been called prostitutes, drug addicts,” she said in an December 2018 interview, now included in the National Inquiry report. “And then there’s always the polite terminology, which is coded, racially coded, like ‘at-risk,’ or those kinds of things. There’s ways of people washing their hands as if to say, ‘Well… that has really nothing to do with us.’ They’ve caused their own disappearances.”
The glaringly-disproportionate impact of Canada’s opioid-involved overdose crisis on Indigenous women can in part be attributed to failure of institutions to protect and care for them, like the agency that Cherisse looked to for help. Teen girls are further made vulnerable “aging-out” polices, where children in foster care are abandoned when they reach the legal adult age. This means that teens are “being given sort of their belongings in a garbage bag and being sent, in British Columbia, kind of to the curb at 19,” according to the report.
For girls who use drugs, like Paige from Vancouver, the riskiness of their use is only exacerbated. After aging out of care at 19, Paige had no place to live and ended up dying of an overdose in the city’s Downtown Eastside, as the report describes.
Another dangerous policy is one that harm reductionists in the United States—like proponents of the Housing First model first developed in New York City in the 1990s, are all too familiar with: sobriety requirements in homeless shelters.
“It sends the message that you’re not welcome here, because you use drugs and alcohol,” described a National Inquiry queer/trans participant. “Some women were murdered because they used drugs. They will use drugs to stay awake and stay safe. This stigma around drug use and alcoholism makes people feel unwelcome, unsafe, and puts them on the street and at risk.”
The report recommends the availability of more “wet shelters,” which would permit substance use. “The rules [for substance use] for [2SLGBTQQIA] clients in facilities cannot be so stringent,” adds another participant.
Additionally, straightforward racism and discrimination embedded in institutions makes them inaccessible to women who need them the most. “Difficulty in accessing services and experiences of discrimination in mainstream services were raised, especially finding appropriate responses to mental health and drug and/or alcohol rehabilitation needs,” found the Montreal Urban Aboriginal Community Strategy Network in a 2012 health needs assessment.
Among its Demands for Justice, the Commission is calling for the development and implementation of “a National Action Plan to ensure equitable access to employment, housing, education, safety, and health care.”
Resources offered to indigenous people regarding problematic or chaotic drug use need to include healing strategies rooted in culture and tradition, agree public health and indigenous activists.
“In the Downtown Eastside,” a Vancouver neighborhood central to many people who use drugs, do sex work, and/or are houseless, “people get desensitized to trauma and people passing away,” said Tracey Morrison, the president of Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society, in a 2015 interview. “We found in the talking circle,” a traditional practice that has been used by harm reductionists to build user-generated knowledge, “that there is a need for people to tell their stories and help heal from these traumas.”
Tracey Morrison in 2013, who later passed away in 2017. Source: Morrison via Facebook
Moving forward, the National Inquiry report brings to the fore Indigenous perspectives on transforming what treatment can mean.
“Whole family restoration and healing as opposed to removing one person and not addressing possible root issues and opportunities for re-traumatization when returning to the home,” said a participant speaking from an Inuit perspective during a Truth Gathering hearing. Someone else, with Métis experience and cultural knowledge, advises: “Keep the families together during times of healing and a transition. Provide them with the support they need to work out their issues and rebuild their life.”
And for Morrison, it also comes down to policy. “Stop the Drug War. Stop the War on the Poor. We must all work together and help our people who are some of the most criminalized, stigmatized, and marginalized, all living here in the DTES,” wrote Morrison in an opening statement, title “Sad Siren Song’s Call to Action, in a city-conducted study of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. “We have the right to live.”
Photograph of Closing Ceremony of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, June 3, 2019 by Red Works